Monday, February 4, 2013

Dangerous bike conditions on Route 1 sidepath - Guest blogger Mark Murphy

You probably have a stretch of your usual ride or commuter route that worries you more than the rest, like a blind curve or a busy crossing. Mine is just a mile from home, near where Richmond Highway (U.S. Route 1) crosses the Beltway at the gateway to southern Fairfax County. The bicycle-pedestrian side trail that runs alongside Richmond Highway crosses an entrance to the Hampton Inn parking lot and continues through the intersection with Fort Hunt Road.

The side trail is only a few years old, built as part of the Wilson Bridge Project. Soon after it opened, I found that cars making the right on red at Fort Hunt Road and cars exiting the parking lot at the Hampton Inn routinely drove across the side path, looking to their left to turn into northbound Richmond Highway traffic but never looking to their right for bicycles or pedestrians coming southbound on the trail. So as you come to these crossings, even with the right of way or the green light, you never know if a driver will pull out and hit you.

In 2011 I asked Fairfax Police to do some enforcement at the Fort Hunt Road intersection. The officer who went to the location observed a constant flow of cars running the red to turn onto Richmond Highway. I thought that some new signs and notices might make drivers more aware of the hazard, so I spent most of that year working (not very effectively) to get Fairfax County and Virginia DOT to take a look at the intersection. When I met with a staff member of Supervisor Gerry Hyland’s office and a VDOT employee at the site, I brought this photo of a sign from the City of Alexandria.

Photo by Mark Murphy
I also suggested that this sign, plus a yellow line down the middle of the crosswalk at Fort Hunt Road and a painted crosswalk at the parking lot entrance would make the point that those crossings carry two-way traffic.

VDOT, which controls Fairfax County’s roads, will not post any sign not on its approved list and the one I suggested isn’t on it. The VDOT technician also said he could not paint a yellow stripe on a crosswalk. Instead, VDOT and Supervisor Hyland’s office offered to make three other changes: move the "Yield to Pedestrians / $200 Fine" sign on Fort Hunt closer to the intersection, where it was more likely to be seen by drivers thinking about turning right on red; paint the crosswalk with stripes; and install another "Yield to Pedestrians / Fine" sign at the Hampton Inn entrance nearby. But after a few months, when none of those things happened, I checked back to find that Fairfax County had decided that they couldn’t do any of the things they had agreed to. Exasperated, I asked Supervisor Hyland’s office what they could do, and the staff person said she would talk with Fairfax Police about stepping up enforcement.

That was May of 2012. Every day that I commute home from work, I’m extra watchful of right-on-red drivers and cars crossing the side trail. But last month, on January 4, I was hit by a car entering the Hampton Inn parking lot. The driver didn’t see me riding along the trail, although I had on a reflective vest and two headlights. I didn’t see his turn signal, if it was on. When his car turned towards me, I slammed on my brakes but couldn’t get out of his way in time and when he hit me, I flipped up onto his car’s hood.

Thankfully, I am okay. The driver did the right thing and seemed genuinely sorry about the collision. My bumps and bruises healed and I’m looking forward to getting back on the bike when the repairs are done. The bike needs a lot of work but the driver’s insurance company is taking care of that. But Fairfax County, VDOT and Fairfax Police all failed me and, in a sense, they also failed the driver.

When VDOT and Fairfax County have been made aware of a serious safety hazard to cyclists and pedestrians, why have they done nothing about it? Instead of ignoring, then rejecting a number of ideas for improving safety at these crossings, I would like for authorities to make it their problem and come up with some solutions. VDOT and Fairfax County authorities should have to answer why nothing has been done to alert drivers that they are crossing over a bicycle and pedestrian trail.

When a bicyclist is on a bicycle-pedestrian side trail and gets hit by a car, why does the police officer say the bicyclist shouldn’t ride on the “sidewalk?” The officer came up with several excuses, like a broken streetlight and the questionable effectiveness of reflective vests, for refusing to cite the driver for the collision. The driver that crossed a bicycle path and struck a cyclist was not cited. How can that be right?

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Sorry to hear you were hit. I know the intersection well. It is very poorly designed.
Bad cycling infrastructure abound in the Mount Vernon District. Other examples include in road sensors a traffic lights that don't activate for bicycles, "bike paths" that aren't even adequate for walking, shoulderless streets (Huntington Ave), come and go shoulders (Fort Hunt Road).
Really sorry this happened to you! Did the police officer really say that you should not have been riding on the bike path? If so, I would bring that to the attention of his superiors so he does not continue to be misinformed... Usually Fairfax county police are very strict - I am stunned the officer did not cite the driver for hitting a cyclist who was wearing reflective gear, lights, and on a bike path...??????
Wow - glad you're okay, and sorry that it happened.

Drivers sliding through lights is de rigueur all over the county and there's very little enforcement. As I've taught my two kids to drive over the last couple of years, and insisted that they come to a full stop before turning right on red, I can't tell you how many times they've been honked at, passed aggressively afterwards, and often flipped off.
Wow. That's appalling. How can anyone justify not citing a driver who hits a cyclist on a bike trail? And you're right about the need for better signs. I occasionally make that right from Fort Hunt onto Route 1 while driving and I had no idea there was a bike trail there. No idea at all -- and I'm a cyclist. So yes, the county needs to do something now.
We need to square off the curbs so that it's harder for cars to do the rolling no-look right turn on red. I think right on red should just be prohibited in many places.
Why don't you suggest that they just make it a No Turn on Red light? Especially since you have evidence (your accident) that it is a dangerous intersection.
Sorry you were hit. Would a better action by the county or VDOT be to make this intersection No Turn On Red. Better yet, why not make all right on reds illegal, since this seems to be a major concern at this intersection.
@Thad: I doubt they'll make it a No Turn On Red. There's such a huge flow of traffic coming up Fort Hunt Rd that they "need" the right turns on red to avoid gridlock on Fort Hunt Rd.

My condolences to Mr. Murphy. When I lived in Huntington, I biked that route often and also came close to getting nailed from drivers on Fort Hunt Rd that couldn't be bothered to look right.
That's horrible. I would sign a petition for some increased enforcement there.

I find a similar (albeit smaller) problem with people turning off the exit ramp from GWP onto Slaters Lane. And that IS a no turn on red during certain hours. People still routinely do it and then flick me off for coming across the GWP in the bike lanes with a green light. It's ridiculous.

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