Our bike trails provide some of the simple pleasures in life, and we are privileged to have some of the most popular trails in America. Half a million people use the Mount Vernon Trail each year, and twice that many ride the Washington & Old Dominion. It's inevitable with all this activity that accidents occur, but they can be prevented. The National Park Service is considering whether to paint center lines, post speed limits and level and straighten dangerous sections of trail. The single most useful measure, however, would be to widen the path.

A generous width provides greater clearance between bicyclists, runners and walkers when they pass each other. It reduces the number of collisions and the friction between pedestrians and bike riders. Dogs on or off leash and small children are easier to avoid. Walkers, runners and bicyclists usually exercise with a friend and prefer to travel side by side so they can talk. This can be hazardous on a nine-foot-wide trail. Users must continually shift to single file as people pass in the same or opposite lane, or as they pass others. A 12-foot trail allows side-by-side travel in both directions.

At least three localities have endorsed the 12-foot standard. Sixteen years ago, Eugene, Ore., built its only eight-foot-wide path. It was found to be "dangerously narrow due to shared use by pedestrians, joggers and bicyclists." Eugene has since completed more than 13 miles of 12-foot trail. Seattle has been building 12-foot paths since 1979.

Last year Arlington adopted the new standard. As final links of Arlington's Hike and Bike Loop are completed, major area trails will be easier to reach and even more popular. Arlington already has several trails that are 10 feet wide or better. The new Bluemont Trail will be 12 feet. By comparison, most of the Mount Vernon Trail is only nine feet.

A count was made on the Mount Vernon on a recent Sunday. The weather was hot and humid with thundershowers. The tally was 1,998 people, including 1,729 bike riders. Sunday counts in Eugene, Ore., have averaged 1,573 bicyclists. Our trail bears the same or heavier traffic despite the fact that it is narrower by three feet.

The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials calls for a 12-foot width for heavily traveled, multiuse trails. This should be our guide when existing trails are resurfaced and new trails are built. The Mount Vernon Trail has a 1,000-foot-long section of 12-foot trail just west of National Airport. Users find this section to be safer and more enjoyable than other parts of the trail.

The network of trails provides special access to our parks and monuments. Trails of suitable width will encourage people to spend more time enjoying the outdoors and the natural beauty of the capital area.

The next time you pedal through Gravely Point on your way to Mount Vernon and see the jetliners roar by, just 100 feet overhead, or take an overpass on the Washington & Old Dominion Trail, with cars and trucks speeding underneath, take comfort in the fact that your modest two wheeler and your hiking boots are the best way to enjoy the parks and travel the trails, and that before long they should be safer than ever.

-- Charlie Martin is a member of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association.