Last week’s story about the white zigzag lines on Belmont Ridge Road at the W&OD Trail crossing elicited a large reader response—some raising more questions and additional confusion, others offering suggestions for how to address the concerns.
White zigzag lines were painted along northbound and southbound Belmont Ridge Road in April 2009 to notify motorists they are approaching an intersection with the W&OD Trail. But three years after they were painted, motorists, cyclists, runners and walkers still seem confused about how to react to the lines, resulting in accidents and many near misses.
The zigzag lines are not meant to tell motorists how to proceed at the intersection, which should be treated as any other crosswalk.
“The crossing zigzag lines have no effect on the code requirements on what they are supposed to do,” Virginia Department of Transportation’s Northern Region Traffic Engineer Randy Dittberner said. “The code requirements require drivers yield to pedestrians that are crossing. It requires that people using the crosswalk to not enter in disregard of approaching vehicles. There is a trade off there. Both parties are responsible.”
Aside from the zigzag lines, there are diamond-shaped yellow signs posted 600 feet and 690 feet away from the W&OD Trail crossing along Belmont Ridge Road, respectively, according to VDOT, warning motorists of the upcoming crosswalk. The Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority also posted stop signs on either side of the W&OD Trail, so pedestrians and cyclists don’t enter the crosswalk without first checking to be sure the road is clear of passing vehicles.
Judging from feedback on the newspaper’s website over the past week, people remain unsure whether the zigzag lines and other indicatory schemes are effective.
One commenter wrote, “I think the lines do what they are supposed to do, in that they alert drivers, but only because they don’t know what they mean.”
That is true. The Virginia Transportation Research Council published a study in 2011 that states the zigzag lines have had a positive effect on motorist behavior, but recognizes that “motorists have limited understanding regarding the purpose of the markings.”
Readers commenting on the issue this week also said cyclists are synonymous with motorists, should follow the same road rules as drivers, and shouldn’t be placed in the same category as pedestrians. Indeed, VDOT indicates “every person riding a bicycle on a highway shall be subject to the provisions of the Code of Virginia section on motor vehicles and shall have the rights and duties applicable to the driver of a vehicle unless a provision clearly indicates otherwise.”
However, confusion arises because on the W&OD Trail cyclists are on a “shared-use path” that is defined as a “bikeway that is physically separated from motorized vehicular traffic by an open space or barrier and is located either within the highway right-of-way or within a separate right-of-way,” according to Virginia code.
Therefore, cyclists on the W&OD Trail are not subject to the same provisions as motorists because they are not on a highway.
“One point is clear: The Code treats bicyclists exactly the same as pedestrians, whether they remain on their bikes or dismount,” Dittberner said in an email, referencing the following portion of Virginia code: “A person riding a bicycle, electric personal assistive mobility device, motorized skateboard or scooter, motor-driven cycle, or an electric power-assisted bicycle on a sidewalk, shared-use path, or across a roadway on a crosswalk, shall have all the rights and duties of a pedestrian under the same circumstances.”
Another major concern people have expressed in the past week is that pedestrians and cyclists enter the crosswalk without regard for approaching vehicles. A commenter stated, “Let’s be frank here—cyclists in Loudoun think they own the roads.” But in this case, pedestrians—and cyclists—have the right-of-way at the intersection.
According to Virginia code, “the driver of any vehicle on a highway shall yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian crossing such a highway at any clearly marked crosswalk.” Therefore, pedestrians have the right-of-way once they enter the Belmont Ridge Road crosswalk. However, as Dittberner noted, neither pedestrians nor bicyclists are permitted to enter the crosswalk without first checking for passing vehicles.
This week, readers also noted drivers often stop at the crosswalk even when pedestrians or cyclists are waiting on the side of the road to cross. One wrote: “The biggest problem there is people suddenly stopping when no stop is expected by those behind them. Wait until someone slams on the brakes in front of one of the trucks come out of Luck Stone and the truck, loaded with several tons of gravel, can’t stop that fast. If the truck is behind several other cars there will be a chain reaction of smashed cars and people.”
“Drivers stopping for someone who isn’t in the crosswalk creates a hazard as other drivers don’t see the pedestrian or cyclist. This also creates a hazard for opposing traffic who might not see the cyclist approaching and will continue at-speed through the intersection,” another wrote.
Drivers are required to come to a complete stop at the crosswalk, but only if a pedestrian or cyclist is crossing.
Others wondered why a crosswalk was placed on a road with a speed limit of 45 miles per hour in the first place. “I’ve looked up the law, and I believe it says that on a road over 35 mph, you aren’t supposed to stop for a crosswalk. It is much more dangerous to have someone decide to stop there than to just have the bikes wait for a clearing,” a reader stated.
According to Virginia code, there are three places where drivers are required to yield to pedestrians: at a marked crosswalk, at an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection, and at any intersection where drivers are on a road with a speed limit of 35 miles per hour or less. The third item typically confuses people, Dittberner said.
"In fact, drivers are required to yield to pedestrians when any of the three items are true," he said in an email. "So, for example, if there is a marked crosswalk, drivers are required to yield no matter what the speed limit is.
“In fact, there is no speed limit threshold for installing crosswalks—[VDOT is] permitted to install crosswalks at any location where they help call attention to the crossing and improve traffic safety. VDOT does have guidelines for where marked crosswalks should be installed, but we are not limited to any particular speed limit.”
Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) and his staff have reached out to VDOT to discuss ways to solve the confusion, and the two sides planned to meet this week, after this paper’s deadline.
They will have quite a bit to talk about, as commenters have left many suggestions to improve the situation. One suggested a series of rumble strips, while another proposed VDOT install a light at the intersection, similar to the W&OD Trail crossing at Catoctin Circle in Leesburg. One commenter suggested making it mandatory for cyclists to dismount their bikes before crossing Belmont Ridge Road. Another suggested painting a diamond-shaped sign with the word “caution” on the road, with the zigzag lines underneath to help motorists associate the zigzag lines with how they should proceed.