Citizens: Clear rules needed for safe trails

Stop signs draw debate; bike injuries on risec
July 12, 2019

Safety on local trails drew a standing-room only crowd July 9, as cyclists and pedestrians raised concerns at the Lewes Public Library. 

Beebe Healthcare has reported a rise in bicycle-related injuries and trail users describe many close calls at road crossings. More than 100 people attended the town hall meeting hosted by Sen. Ernie Lopez, R-Lewes, along with police officers from several jurisdictions and representatives from the Delaware Department of Transportation.

The takeaways from the 90-minute discussion were that trails are for everybody; it’s best to use common sense on trails; and legislation on stop signs needs clarification.

“We know we can do better,” Lopez said.

The trails are popular, and DelDOT has the numbers to prove it. A counter at the Gills Neck Road crossing of the Junction and Breakwater Trail registered 768 users during a recent weekday, 1,211 users during a recent weekend day and 2,172 people on the Fourth of July.

To stop or not to stop

Stop signs on the trails at roadway intersections drew numerous comments. Walkers say many bicyclists ignore the signs, putting themselves in danger of being hit by a passing vehicle.

Lewes Police Lt. James Azato said bicyclists are not required to stop. But they are required to reduce speed and proceed with caution. Azato’s explanation drew groans.

“We don’t control legislation,” he said. “We just enforce it.”

C.R McLeod, DelDOT’s director of community relations, said cars are supposed to yield to bikes and pedestrians within the crosswalk, including those who are about to enter the road. However, he said, bicyclists and pedestrians need to stop for cars that are approaching the crossing where there isn’t enough time for them to slow and stop, and wait until a car yields to them.

“Ultimately, who is at fault in an incident is up to law enforcement writing the ticket and the court who hears it,” McLeod said. “Cyclists and pedestrians also need to remember they can absolutely be right about having the right of way, but challenging a moving vehicle is not going to have a good outcome.”

Lopez said the law is confusing and may need clarification.

“We can work on that when we get back into session,” Lopez said. “I’m not saying we can change it, but we can work on it. It’s obviously an issue.”

Lewes resident Jim Clark said changing the laws won’t affect anything unless there is someone out on the trails to enforce laws. 

“People don’t follow the rules in their cars, so I don’t know why they’re going to follow them on a bicycle,” he said.

Lewes resident Gary Stabley said he’s advised his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to stay off the roads and trails. Unclear rules are the root issue, and they need to be fixed.

“How can you teach somebody the rules of the road if you don’t have something that’s clear and understandable?” he asked.

Lewes Police Chief Tom Spell said enforcement on the trails is a challenge. He said six of his officers were recently certified to police via bicycle, so residents should begin to see more of a presence on the streets and trails. 

Lt. Lance Skinner of Delaware State Police said everyone has to use common sense. Some motorists may stop, others not, so everyone needs to be on high alert at crossings, he said. If bicyclists are riding across when they are hit, he said, it’s most likely going to be their fault.

“We need to work together, use common sense and share the message,” he said.

Jeff Niezgoda, DelDOT assistant director of planning, said one challenge at dangerous road crossings, such as Old Orchard Road, is that vegetation obscuring views is on privately owned land. 

“We cleared as much right of way as we possibly could,” he said. “We [initially] reached out to all homeowners’ associations in the corridor to consider additional clearing, and we received no support. Now, they’re slowly but surely coming back.” 

Animosity grows

Lack of etiquette of bicyclists was under the microscope as well. Resident Ray Scott recounted a June incident, when his wife suffered significant injuries after being run off the trail by fast-moving bicyclists. Scott and his wife pulled off to the side to allow a large group to pass, but when they began to resume their ride, a smaller group raced past, startling Scott’s wife and causing her to fall off her bicycle into rocks beside the trail where she hit her head against a split-rail fence. 

“They never stopped,” he said, noting the group also didn’t slow down at a stop sign, and they were blaring music. “She could’ve been killed. These maniacs have to stop riding any way they want. The idiots are causing mayhem on the trail, and it has to stop.” 

Jenn Rowan of LifeCycle in MIlford said everyone has to learn to co-exist on the trails because they are intended for all. She read comments from a local social media group that wished harm on bicyclists.

“The animosity between people on foot and people on bicycles and people in cars needs to stop. It’s a beautiful town. We love it here. Together we can work. Together we can share the road. Together we can share the trail and truly make this community retain its unique cultural aspect,” she said.

Bicyclist Heather Fitzgerald said pointed out that people of all skill levels use the trail. She suggested bike rental venues show a short two- to three-minute educational video highlighting state law and proper etiquette. 

“We may have good bike-handling skills, but you don’t know the skill level of the people you’re passing,” she said. “Approach every person like they are brand new, and give them as much room as possible.”

Some members of the public also shared their frustrations with pedestrians on the trails, whether unleashed dogs, uncontrolled children or walkers not staying to the right side of the trail. 

DelDOT staff attending the meeting took notes and plan to discuss possible changes at certain intersections as well as other alterations along the trail to make it safer and more usable for all levels of bicyclists and walkers.

“We’ve never had the after-the-fact feedback we’re getting tonight,” Niezgoda said.

“We know what the issues are, and we’re working our best to resolve those,” said Anthony Aglio, a DelDOT planning supervisor. “This trail is for everyone. It’s for grandchildren, grandparents, able-bodied people, disabled-bodied people.”

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