Caution, courtesy keys to safety on mixed-use trails
Suburban trails are filled with bikers, walkers, runners and in-line skaters of all ages and skill levels, but in light of a fatal accident on an Arlington Heights path, experts are saying people need to focus on safety as much as fun.
That said, the death of Barbara Pagano is a statistical rarity. The 74-year-old Arlington Heights woman was walking around Lake Arlington in late June when she was accidentally hit by an 11-year-old bicyclist. She fell and hit her head, police say, and died July 3.
Tips from experts and you
If you are biking
Ÿ Adhere to the speed limit, if one is posted. If not, judge how crowded the trail is and find a safe speed.
Ÿ Wear a helmet
Ÿ Pass on the left.
Ÿ When riding with children, adults should always ride behind the kids.
Ÿ Ride single file.
Walkers and runners
Ÿ Don't wear headphones or ear buds: You may not hear trouble coming or you may just "zone out."
Ÿ If you must wear ear buds, keep the volume low.
Ÿ If someone behind you shouts, "Passing!" just stay the course. Let them pass you on the left.
Ÿ Don't walk more than two abreast and never walk in the oncoming lane.
Ÿ Don't let your dog wander into oncoming traffic.
Top 5 comments and suggestions from our Facebook friends on how to make biking and walking on multiuse paths safer for everyone.
Mark Krier, Mount Prospect
"I cycle for fun and fitness, but I quit using Lake Arlington not long after the first time I tried it. 'Mixed use' is only safe and effective when there aren't pedestrians every 50 yards. cyclists interested in fitness really belong out on the roads, where we can try to survive the ignorance and malice of cars without running down pedestrians. To that end, I'd rather see Arlington Heights put frequent speed bumps along the path to kill cycling traffic, but offset that with dedicated bike lanes on some main thoroughfares to make up a longer, safer route for cyclists."
Friends of Cycling in Elk Grove
"Multiuse paths are for everyone. Cyclists need to adjust their speed for the conditions — or choose a different place to ride. And, PLEASE PLEASE do not wear earbuds while cycling! You're essentially eliminating your sense of hearing and that is one of the most dangerous things a cyclist can do. The Friends of Cycling in Elk Grove are working hard to educate all cyclists (recreational, racers, necessity cyclists) on how to ride safely and predictably."
Rene Douglas Lawell, Ingleside
"The same problem exists at Busse Woods: Too many bicyclists are traveling too fast, and go around you at a high rate of speed and no warning. When you approach a walker or blader on the path the they have the right of way. You yield to the walker or runner or blader. I am a cyclist and when you approach a walker or runner, you need to slow down, let them know you're there, and cautiously go around them, especially the children and elderly. And at no time should you be wearing ear buds on a busy path. They make personal sound systems that don't have to be in your ears. They wrap around your neck or you can put the bag on your handlers of your bike. There is no excuse for reckless riding on bike paths. If you need to ride that fast get out into traffic, or find a secluded path with not much traffic and do it there. BE SAFE!"
Mike Jurgensen, Arlington Heights
"How about walkers following the rules too? Often I see people walking three abreast, and they won't move even when they see you coming. In addition, many times do the joggers and walkers go right down the middle yellow line. Blame the cyclist if you must and quite a few of them are going way too fast, but everyone shares the responsibility for safety."
"There could be a path rating system. Based on the width length, and average usage the path could have a "suitability" rating for walkers, runners, and cyclists. People could choose, or not choose, a path based on this information. Or, they might behave differently. For example have a cyclist adjust for a path with a lot of walkers or a walker adjust to a path with a lot of cyclists."
The U.S. Department of Transportation and Federal Highway Administration do not track bike-vs.-pedestrian fatalities because they happen so infrequently.
But people who use suburban trails say bumps, bruises and close calls happen with alarming frequency.
"You have so many types of people using the path for so many different purposes and making the assumption that since they aren't on the road, they're safe," said Jason Jenkins, education specialist with the Active Transportation Alliance, whose mission is to make bicycling, walking and public transit in the Chicago area so safe, convenient and fun that people drive less.
"But there are a lot of crashes and some pretty serious injuries."
The posted speed limit at Lake Arlington is 8 mph, which users say is often ignored. But without financial resources from the park district or police department to enforce that limit, experts said it's up to walkers and bikers to be alert and police themselves.
"I don't know anyone who rides 8 miles per hour," said Dave Simmons, a cycling instructor and volunteer with Friends of Cycling in Elk Grove Village. "Some people run faster than that."
Simmons said enforcing a limit on miles per hour might not be reasonable, so users need to base their speed on current conditions.
"If you're out there on a weekend and it's super crowded, it's probably not a good time to train for your next race," said Simmons, who lives near Busse Woods but doesn't go there on summer weekends because of crowds.
"I'm more intimidated to ride on a multiuse trail than I am to ride on a road," he said. "I'm safer on the roads."
Gene Zaworski, president of the Cycle Arlington bike club, said the club doesn't speed-train on multiuse trails.
Bikers aren't the only ones who have a responsibility to watch out for others. Wearing headphones to listen to music while walking is one of the most dangerous practices, experts say. You can't hear people coming up behind you, or bikers calling, "On your left!"
"You're essentially eliminating the second most important sense, aside from sight," Simmons said.
Slower traffic should stay to the right, faster traffic should pass on the left. If a biker or runner is passing a walker, it is important to yell out "passing!" or ring a bell on the bike to let people know, Simmons said.
Wearing a helmet is a key safety point for bikers. Zaworski said the club won't let people ride without one.
Simmons also said practice makes perfect.
"The more you ride, the safer you are because you learn how to ride in traffic, what clothing to wear, how to maintain your bike, how to stop quickly," he said.
Ironically, it's easier to teach safety rules to children, Simmons said, because adults often think they know how to ride a bike and don't need any tips.
When riding with children, Simmons said parents should always ride behind, even if that means they have to slow down, to serve as an extra set of eyes and ears for their kids on the path.
While many people like to ride or walk in groups, that can also be dangerous, Jenkins said. It's better for cyclists to ride single file and for walkers not to take up the whole path, leaving room for both parties to move safely.
The League of Illinois Bicyclists, based in Aurora, put out a brochure a few years ago with tips just on this subject, called "Share the Trail." League Executive Director Ed Barsotti ticks off his main tips: Pass on the left, be courteous, yield to slower users, no headphones.
"If you are going to be listening to music, you should have it at a volume where you can be aware of your surroundings," he said.
Since the crash that led to Barbara Pagano's death, a discussion has resurfaced about the Arlington Heights Park District putting in a second path to separate walkers and runners from bikers. Park district officials estimate a second path would cost $875,000.
Simmons, however, suggests spending more money on signs, or even classes to help people be aware of what they need to do to stay safe.
"The separated space is not a bad idea, but what's to stop a runner from bumping into a walker?" Simmons said. "At some point you have to treat the actual issue and not just the symptoms, and the answer to that is education."
Others have suggested banning bicycles from the Lake Arlington path altogether, but Jenkins disagrees.
"Every activity is going to have its risks," he said. "The health benefits way outweigh the risks in terms of physical activity and as connectors in a larger network for nonmotorized transportation."
Zaworski, on the other hand, has a cheaper idea for how to improve safety at a crowded path like Lake Arlington: Make the path one-way only, and separate the walkers/runners from the bikers/skaters by the thick yellow line down the middle.
No matter the solution, experts said that on a daily basis it comes down to common courtesy.
"Everyone has a right to use the trail. It's a shared space," Simmons said. "If everyone does what they should and follows the rules, it works."
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