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Article posted: 7/13/2013 8:00 AM

Caution, courtesy keys to safety on mixed-use trails

By Melissa Silverberg

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.

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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