Updated: County Leaders To Address W&OD Crossing Confusion - Leesburg Today Online—Daily News Coverage of Loudoun County, Leesburg, Ashburn: News

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Updated: County Leaders To Address W&OD Crossing Confusion

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Posted: Wednesday, August 1, 2012 10:41 am

The white zigzag lines along northbound and southbound Belmont Ridge Road are intended to notify drivers they are approaching an intersection with the W&OD Trail, but—three years after they were painted—drivers, as well as cyclists, runners and walkers, still seem confused about how to react to the lines, resulting in accidents and many near misses.

Painted on Belmont Ridge Road in April 2009, the zigzag lines are meant to get drivers’ attention, Virginia Department of Transportation’s Northern Region Traffic Engineer Randy Dittberner said.

“Belmont Ridge, we recognized, was a very difficult crossing, and we wanted to do something there to help raise drivers’ awareness of the crossing,” Dittberner said this week. “It was already well marked with signs advancing to the crossing and existing signs at the intersection itself. There is only so much we can do with signage to notify drivers.”

There are triangular yellow signs posted 600 feet and 690 feet away from the W&OD Trail crossing along Belmont Ridge Road, respectively, according to VDOT. But the agency decided to take the notifications a step further by installing the zigzag lines, which are experimental and required approval from the Federal Highway Administration.

“[The zigzag lines] are a nonstandard use of pavement marking treatment used in other countries—Europe and Australia. They use this kind of treatment where they catch drivers’ attention at crossings,” Dittberner said.

However, the zigzag lines are not meant to tell drivers 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,” 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.”

Therefore, drivers can and should stop at the crosswalk to allow pedestrians through when they are already present. But there are also stop signs, which were installed by the Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority, on either side of the W&OD Trail, so pedestrians and cyclists should stop before entering the crosswalk.                 

But Ric Neumann, a 19-year Ashburn Farm resident, has seen pedestrians ignore the stop signs.

“People using the trail are getting accustomed to having some people stop, and I have seen them actually just keep walking or riding their bike, and they don’t stop. They just walk right out into the road,” Neumann said. “Sooner or later either someone walking the trail is going to get hit or someone else is going to get rear ended.”

According to Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office records, there were 11 accidents at the intersection of Belmont Ridge Road and the W&OD Trail since January 2011. Of those, eight were rear-end crashes and two were collisions with something off the road. The last one was with a deer. None of them involved pedestrians.

Of course, the sheriff’s office cannot track near misses or “almost” accidents.

Sheriff Michael Chapman also noted that the figure might not completely cover all the accidents that occur in that area, as deputies can use the nearest cross streets, and not the W&OD Trail on their accident reports.

Major John Fraga, who heads the Operational Support Division, which includes the traffic safety unit, said he has been in contact with VDOT about the lines, noting they have been effective, but agreeing there is extensive confusion in the community with limited understanding about how they should be viewed. Fraga said the issue would be discussed during an upcoming meeting of the county’s Transportation Safety Commission as well. That panel includes representatives from all the county’s law enforcement agencies as well as VDOT.

Chapman said there are other options, like flashing lights or additional signage, that could be added to better alert drivers, but he agreed it is mostly about driver education.

“I am not sure you’ll ever be able to fully eliminate the confusion,” Fraga said.

Sgt. Kevin Robinette, of the sheriff’s office traffic unit, said the best option for pedestrian crossings in high-speed areas is a pedestrian bridge. “But that means money,” he said. “On a high-speed roadway, where the speed limit is 45 miles per hour, that is really the best bet.”

In 2008, plans were first approved to expand Belmont Ridge Road to four lanes, with enough right of way for six lanes, as well as right and left turn lanes at all intersections, new traffic signals where they are needed, a shared-use path and a bridge over the W&OD Trail, among other improvements. At the time, the Board of Supervisors balked at the price tag for such improvements and the project was scaled back, although a grade-separated pedestrian crossing at the W&OD Trail was still envisioned.

However, in recent years, construction funding for any improvements has been scarce, and the potential to meet the originally projected completion date in 2012 has long since come and gone.

Dittberner stressed the presence of the stop signs on the trail does not change drivers’ obligation to yield to crossing pedestrians. “Drivers have the same requirement to yield whether or not stop signs are posted for trail users. (However, pedestrians are not permitted to enter the street in disregard of approaching traffic),” he wrote in an email.

Ashburn Farm HOA General Manager Jeremy Cushman said in an email he also has seen pedestrians ignore the stop signs posted on the W&OD Trail, so vehicles swerve off the road to avoid them. Partly because he has witnessed so many near accidents there, Cushman has stopped traveling Belmont Ridge Road on his daily commute.

He’s seen drivers notice the stop signs, which are posted askew on the W&OD Trail and meant for trial users, and think they are intended for drivers. In turn, the drivers slam on their brakes, causing drivers behind them to follow suit.

Drivers are allowed, and expected, to come to a complete stop at the crosswalk if a pedestrian or cyclist is present.

Overall, it seems drivers are confused as to what they should do when they reach the zigzag lines. Supervisor Ralph Buona (R-Ashburn) said such confusion is causing a safety problem.

 “This is a troubled place,” he said. “It is really just a driver education problem. Drivers don’t understand what this all means.”

Neumann agreed, noting that the zigzag lines are not included in the Virginia Driver’s Manual. Dittberner said DMV holds the ultimate authority over the driver’s manual, but the zigzag lines probably are not included because there are only two locations in the state that utilize them—on Belmont Ridge Road and Sterling Boulevard, where there is another W&OD Trail crossing.

“And since they’re still experimental, I suspect that it’s too soon to consider them for inclusion in the driver’s manual,” Dittberner said in an email, adding that the driver’s manual only provides highlights of traffic control devices, and it doesn’t cover every feature that drivers may encounter on the road.

To alleviate concerns the zigzag lines are causing, Buona thinks lights should be installed at the crosswalk—blinking yellow would mean use caution, and blinking red would mean stop—or more signage be put up, since the zigzag lines are causing people to slow down.

“They are working in that regard,” Buona said. “We need to get some other things up to get rid of the confusion.”

The Virginia Transportation Research Council published a study in 2011 that states the zigzag lines have had a positive effect on driver behavior. For a year after the lines were painted, the intersections were studied to observe driver and pedestrian behavior.

The study’s abstract states it “found that the markings installed in advance of the two crossings [at Belmont Ridge Road and Sterling Boulevard] heightened awareness of approaching motorists. This was evidenced by reduced mean vehicle speeds within the marking zones. Further, the majority of survey respondents indicated an increase in awareness, a change in driving behavior, and a higher tendency to yield than before, and the markings had a sustained positive effect on speed reduction.”

However, it also recognizes that “motorists have limited understanding regarding the purpose of the markings, and users of the W&OD Trail and motorists are confused regarding who has the right-of-way at the crossings.”

When drivers see stop signs directed at W&OD Trail users, they often assume they have the right-of-way. However, Virginia code indicates, “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 at the Belmont Ridge Road crosswalk, when they are present.

Buona and his staff have reached out to VDOT to discuss ways to solve the confusion, and the two sides plan to get together next week.

To answer questions regarding whether a crosswalk can be installed on a road with a speed limit of more than 35 miles per hour:

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;

• 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 (item 1), 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."

Staff Writer Erika Jacobson Moore contributed to this report. 

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  • Marshall posted at 10:07 am on Tue, Aug 7, 2012.

    Marshall Posts: 18

    Fair enough. However, to be truthfully very honest, I've yet to experience the issues your dealing with. (I have however seen drivers who are arragant, rude, and bad, regardless of cyclists being present). On the other hand, I've experienced cyclists assuming its a four way stop on Dry Mill Road's several crossings, I've seen cyclists barrel through the stop signs in Purcellville, and even experienced those few who think they're Lance Armstrong and argue with me at the 7-11 in Leesburg who wrongly have claimed to me that their stop sign is just a "suggestion" and it's not a real legally enforceable stop, and since they're pedestrians I must always yield to them.

    I've never thought or assumed that all cyclists who use the trail are like this, but I've experienced many who are not nice people, and many who should not have the privileged of using the pleasantness of the W&OD Trail.

  • mas954 posted at 8:30 am on Tue, Aug 7, 2012.

    mas954 Posts: 352

    It's not just at the trail crossing where these drivers decide to be "nice" in the middle of a moving line. They also have this bad habit at intersections so those waiting to turn right on red can go. I can't count the number of times I've almost rear-ended someone doing 55 who just stops so someone at a red light can turn into traffic. Can you imagine the poor truck driver, with thousands of pounds of cargo, thinking WT???

    It's not nice; it's beyond stupid.

  • Jim Dunning posted at 7:48 am on Tue, Aug 7, 2012.

    Jim Dunning Posts: 86

    And again this morning. Going both ways there were four or five cyclists stopped, waiting for traffic. On the westward trip a car in the middle of seven decides to slow and stop for the bikers and the large construction truck behind it has to downshift and brake. Coming back east, another car in the middle of a train decides to be nice.

    Marshall, I'm not by any means arguing that it's drivers not cyclists. It's both, which means we need to figure this out together.

  • Jim Dunning posted at 11:27 am on Mon, Aug 6, 2012.

    Jim Dunning Posts: 86

    Marshall, I'm not sure that's true. Just in the past year I had an LCSO deputy wave me over to the side of the rode and flip out over what he perceived as a violation of traffic code relative to lane changes. "Flip out" is a euphemism here, by the way, and within a couple months the LCSO confirmed to me that my interpretation of the code was correct.

    So, despite the error, cops are out there paying attention to cyclists.

    If only it were that simple, though. For some reason, motorists tolerate infractions and bad behavior from fellow drivers that cause them to flip out when a cyclist does it. Why? I don't know.

    With regard to the Belmont Ridge intersection, that, too, continues to be far from simple. Yesterday morning I was going west on the Trail and stopped at the crossing for a single car -- who proceeded to stop for me (I waved him through). Nice, but confusing and delaying for both of us. Even worse, on my return trip 90 minutes later I stopped again for about 10 cars to pass. There were three to four cyclists stopped on either side of Belmont Ridge waiting all told. The last car to pass decided to stop for us as well, and when I waved him on, he got exasperated and gave me the finger.

    How do we deal with that?

  • Marshall posted at 11:48 pm on Sun, Aug 5, 2012.

    Marshall Posts: 18

    Erwin, your partially right. However, police DO enforce laws pertaining to red lights and stop signs. Sure, people still do it - but when they don't obey the law and the police see it, they do suffer consequences. Right now, Leesburg Police, Purcellville Police, and Loudoun County Sheriffs are not enforcing any infractions from cyclists.

  • Erv Addison posted at 11:04 pm on Sat, Aug 4, 2012.

    Erv Addison Posts: 105

    Marshall, that would likely be as effective as the law that requires cars to come to a full stop at stop signs and red lights.

  • Marshall posted at 12:25 am on Fri, Aug 3, 2012.

    Marshall Posts: 18

    I wasn't talking about cyclists at red-lights. There are several crossings in western Loudoun where the W&OD Trail intersects and cyclists are expected to stop and vehicle traffic on the road is expected to continue on their way.

    What we need is what another poster mentioned - a law where cyclists have to dismount for a few seconds before proceeding at stop signs on the W&OD trail.

  • Jim Dunning posted at 2:55 pm on Thu, Aug 2, 2012.

    Jim Dunning Posts: 86

    Marshall rightly mentions the unlawfulness and poor judgment some cyclists use when ignoring stop signs/lights (I'm assuming he's referring to treating red lights as "4-way stops").

    Both motorists and cyclists "own" the roads, but not all cyclists break the law. Along the lines of what Marshall has observed, try this experiment the next time you're at an intersection: count how many of the cars actually come to a complete stop when turning right at a red light or stop sign or completely stop when going in any direction at a stop sign. (You might be surprised at the percentages.)

    Then examine our reactions and how they might differ when seeing cyclists and drivers doing the same thing.

    Driver and cyclists (and pedestrians) do have to share the road. This means recognizing each's rights and responsibilities, but also not generalizing the poor behavior of some to all, whether they ride a bike or drive a car.

  • Marshall posted at 12:55 pm on Thu, Aug 2, 2012.

    Marshall Posts: 18

    Lets be frank here - cyclists in Loudoun think they own the roads. I've been approaching intersections and a cyclists refuses to stop - or assumes its a four-way stop. It is not. In those cases, he/she has committed a great error. I remember at one point the Sheriff's office was ticketing cyclists who failed to observe traffic laws, especially at crossings on the W&OD trail. But the cyclists cried and cried, and I guess the Sheriff's office caved in to their demands to rule the roads.

    Sheriff Chapman, if your interested in proving some good will towards motorists, PLEASE start setting up traffic traps for these dangerous cyclists!

  • Jim Dunning posted at 12:28 pm on Thu, Aug 2, 2012.

    Jim Dunning Posts: 86

    Prepositions are important -- but so are antecedents!

    This article actually adds to the confusion, now that I re-read it. It does clearly and appropriately describe Virginia traffic code early on--

    "'The crossing zigzag lines have no effect on the code requirements on what they are supposed to do,' 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.'”

    Near its end, however, when quoting the law in a somewhat verbatim form, it leaves out a very important part that addresses the heart of the issue here. Before identifying the three crosswalk installation considerations, the paper should have included the line of traffic code that immediately precedes these three factors. It says--

    "The driver of any vehicle on a highway shall yield the right-of-way to any pedestrian crossing such highway:"

    In other words, unless the pedestrian or cyclist is already crossing the road, the driver has the right-of-way.

  • Jim Dunning posted at 11:34 am on Thu, Aug 2, 2012.

    Jim Dunning Posts: 86

    I use this crossing at least four or five times a week on my bike and observe that the problems fall into three categories, all solvable through education and common sense.

    The first are the cyclists who are certainly not confused about the law and signage and blow through the stop signs on the Trail, sometimes misjudging car proximity and risking their and others' lives. They are wrong.

    Then there are the many pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers who are confused about how to deal with crosswalks. As the article points out, few note that crosswalk signs everywhere -- not just at the W&OD intersections -- say "Yield to pedestrians IN the crosswalk" not "AT the crosswalk;" this means cars must slow or stop only for pedestrians already crossing, not for waiting pedestrians. This confusion, however, results in Trail walkers and cyclists blithely crossing into the paths of oncoming vehicles (including the quarry and construction trucks that barrel by on Belmont Ridge) and cars stopping for Trail users waiting to cross.

    The third group is likely related to the second, drivers who stop for waiting hikers and cyclists, frequently holding up (or colliding with) car traffic behind and in front of them. These well-meaning people either think they must stop or just want to be nice, but actually cause problems for drivers and Trail users. All too often, for instance, at the relatively quiet Smith's Switch Road and W&OD intersection, I've gotten into waving matches with a driver of the only car in sight, who has stopped for me as I wait to cross, stopped on my bike; he's waving me through as a kind gesture while I'm waving him on, telling him he has the right of way. Of course, what he's not stopping to think about in this instance of good will is that we both would have been on our ways much faster if he had just kept going.

    A more serious downside to this is the confusion and danger it causes, since it promotes inconsistent behavior by all concerned and creates dangerous situations.

    Drivers, thank you for the generosity, but stop being nice -- cautiously go through the intersection, but go through the intersection. Trail users, stop and wait till it's safe.

  • Sterling20164 posted at 9:48 am on Thu, Aug 2, 2012.

    Sterling20164 Posts: 15

    There are a few issues:
    1) Cyclists are not pedestrians. They need to follow the laws of the road. A stop sign for them means they stop until they can safely cross. That's basically the law on the books now for pedestrians (a pedestrian crossing while disregarding traffic). If cyclists dismount (as they should), they are pedestrians.
    2) Vehicles stop on the road. Traffic should only stop if someone is in the crosswalk, not about to cross. Other drivers should see someone in the crosswalk and anticipate slowing down. 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. This happens all the time on Crestview Drive in Herndon.
    3) Someone said VDOT created this problem. No, it's been a problem, and the solution costs lots of money. As a cheaper alternative, VDOT did something, and it's an experiment. We have experiments to see if they'll work. Don't vilify them for this. The ideal solution is a grade-separated crossing.

    A traffic light (like at Catoctin Circle or in Herndon) won't work and here's why: the cyclist or pedestrian presses the button and has to wait a few moments. While they're waiting, there's a break in traffic and they go. Then the light turns red for BRR traffic, and there are no pedestrians or cyclists still waiting to cross. And then traffic is backed up waiting for the light. While this would create a safer crossing for cyclists and pedestrians, you'd have the issue you have at every other light: people running it because they've been waiting in traffic.

    A four-way stop also won't work. Ask anyone who has ever seen the Ferndale Avenue crossing in Herndon. Drivers have to stop so cyclists think they don't.

    Better education is key. I'm an avid trail user and I've been rear-ended twice by another cyclist when I was stopping at a stop sign. Maybe signs on both the road and trail reminding people to either stop or yield, or not stop. Flashing red lights on the trail and flashing yellow lights on BRR might be effective.

    The zig-zag lines are a good idea, though I would have liked to see them implemented the same way at both intersections. Sterling Boulevard's are in place of the lane markings and are shallower angles, and BRR's are in the middle of the lane and much more accentuated. Here's an idea: a diamond sign with the word "CAUTION" at the top and the zig-zags leading down underneath it. Then you have a way to associate the marking with what it should mean.

  • 1oddmanout posted at 9:15 am on Thu, Aug 2, 2012.

    1oddmanout Posts: 2

    How about a cost study for a trail overpass, and pay for it by a subscription by trail users?

  • BeezleBub posted at 7:57 pm on Wed, Aug 1, 2012.

    BeezleBub Posts: 80

    Perhaps making it mandatory that bikers *MUST* dismount before crossing the road?
    Besides...the pedestrians have a stopsign on their side...so *THEY* are required to yield, not the drivers who have *NO SUCH SIGN*. Treat it like any other intersection...the one with the stop sign stops and yields...what's so difficult about that?

  • confused123 posted at 7:48 pm on Wed, Aug 1, 2012.

    confused123 Posts: 1

    I don't understand this at all. LCSO has been out there at that crossing, and explicitly telling drivers NOT to stop. I got yelled at for trying to stop for pedestrians on the trail at the stop sign. I agree that the answer is the obvious one, which is already on the books. Build the bridge over the road. This is one of the only remaining crossings on a busy street, with Sterling Blvd being the other, which also got the experimental lines. 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.

  • majric posted at 7:20 pm on Wed, Aug 1, 2012.

    majric Posts: 8

    All of the 'ad this and add that' simply compounds the problem. There wasn't a problem until VDOT decided to make one. The solution is a very simple one and that's what's on the books and everyone already understands, which is those with the stop sign (W&OD user) do not proceed until the other roadway (Belmont Ridge Rd.) is safe for crossing. In a year and a half we now have at least eight known accidents there involving rearend collision all because someone at VDOT came up with a solution without a problem. It is incumbent on the W&OD user to stop and wait for a safe opportunity to cross. How complicated is that?

  • hubba bubba posted at 4:25 pm on Wed, Aug 1, 2012.

    hubba bubba Posts: 440

    Maybe they should post a light at that intersection like they have at the crossing in Leesburg at Catocin Circle. Path users hit a button and the traffic light signals cars to stop, BUT there are also signs in each direction that alert drivers further back from the crossing that there is a red light and everyone has time to slow down.

  • Frank Reynolds posted at 3:34 pm on Wed, Aug 1, 2012.

    Frank Reynolds Posts: 674

    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.

  • David Dickinson posted at 2:51 pm on Wed, Aug 1, 2012.

    David Dickinson Posts: 1025

    How about a series of rumble strips? They are simple and work well.

  • majric posted at 2:21 pm on Wed, Aug 1, 2012.

    majric Posts: 8

    The biggest problem there is people suddenly stopping when noo stop is expected by those behind them. Wait until someone slams on the brakes in front of one of the trucks coming out of Luck's 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. Also, acording to VDOTS own regulations, the crosswalks are only allowed for roads where the speed limit is 35 mph or less. Belmont Ridge is 45 mph. That's too fast to put in a crosswalk. Why not put crosswalks on places like Rt. 7 or I95 ? Answer is obvious. Just take out the lines or build a bridge.