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.