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Road and Trail Intersection Safety
An examination of present practice and recommendations for future actions

"The time has come to learn more about the needs and behaviors of motorists and trail users and ensure that design guidelines for and laws and policies governing road and trail intersections fully provide for the safety of this increasingly prevalent type of traffic junction."

From Parks & Trails New York

Executive Summary - Download final report, 82 pages (pdf 2.0 mb)

photo of bikes on trail crossing road
Street crossing on the Burke Gilman Rail Trail, Seattle (photo by Stuart Macdonald, 2006)

Fueled by funding from federal transportation enhancements programs and growing public demand, new trails are opened each year. With the exception of trails that are fully contained within a park or other facility, most trails will inevitably cross over or intersect in some manner with roadways. As the number of trails increases and more and more persons of all ages and abilities become trail users, the opportunities for exposure to the risks associated with road and trail intersections will continue to grow. The number of reported road and trail intersection crashes may now be low, or under reported, but with increasing trail traffic volume this situation will inevitably change, with possibly very disastrous consequences.

The time has come to learn more about the needs and behaviors of motorists and trail users and ensure that design guidelines and laws and policies governing road and trail intersections fully provide for the safety of this increasingly prevalent type of traffic junction. The purpose of this study is to examine the current state of practice of the design and management of intersections between trails and roadways, gather feedback on road and trail intersection crashes and complaints, raise public awareness of the issue of road and trail intersection safety, and offer policy and design recommendations that will improve the safety of road and trail intersections.

Information on the current state of practice was obtained from a literature review of existing design guidelines and trail design and management practices, interviews with persons experienced in the design and management of trails, and the results of a comprehensive survey mailed to 1896 trail groups and officials from different levels of government involved with trail design and management.

Survey Results

A total of 212 survey responses were received from 174 respondents. Responses were greater than respondents as some persons reported on more than one trail. The information presented in the report is based on surveys of 194 different trails as 18 surveys were returned by persons who did not have any trails within their jurisdiction.

Crashes: Seven road and trail intersection crashes were reported, three of which were fatal. Two of the fatal crashes involved collisions between motorists and off-highway vehicles (ATVs, dirt bikes, four-wheelers). The other fatal crash involved a motorist and a bicyclist. In all cases, few details were available regarding the conditions and behaviors that led to the crash, illustrating the lack of knowledge and availability of detailed reports concerning crashes at road and trail intersections.

Complaints: Twenty percent of the surveys indicated that complaints had been received regarding road and trail intersection safety. Speeding vehicles and visibility (sight distance) for cars, pedestrians, and snowmobiles were the types of complaints mentioned most often.

Traffic Control Devices: Most trails had some type of traffic control device on-road and/or on-trail. More than half of the trails surveyed had on-road trail identification signs. Less than half had gates or bollards. More than half of all trails had STOP signs. But, since STOP signs reinforce assignment of right of way, the fact that 44 percent of state roads, 22 percent of county roads, and 41 percent of town roads had no such controls could increase the exposure to risk at these road and trail intersections.

Ways to improve safety: Survey respondents offered a number of ways to improve road and trail intersection safety. Additional signage was suggested most often, such as trail or snowmobile crossing ahead signs, pedestrian crossing signs, and signs alerting vehicles and pedestrians of the need to stop for pedestrians in a crosswalk. Pavements markings and crosswalks were also frequently suggested. Other survey respondents mentioned the need to strengthen enforcement of speed limits and crosswalk laws as a way to improve road and trail intersection safety.

Lack of knowledge: In response to a question about knowledge of road and trail intersection crashes, 41 surveys (21%) answered "unknown." On 42 surveys (22 %), respondents did not answer the question, which also suggests a lack of information. This means that 43 percent of survey respondents most likely had no idea about any crashes at their road and trail intersections. Similarly, in a follow up survey with those who had received complaints about road and trail intersection safety, nearly 88 percent stated that they were unaware if there was any review process in place if a crash were to occur. Follow up surveys with individuals who had received complaints about road and trail intersection safety also revealed that nearly 60 percent had little or no knowledge of what guidelines had been used to design their road and trail intersections. Similarly, half did not know if sight distance was even considered in road and trail intersection design.

Recommendations The recommendations presented in the report are based on the concerns expressed in the original and follow up surveys, an examination of present New York State laws governing motorists and trail users at road and trail intersections, techniques and treatments employed in other states and municipalities, the experience of trail design experts, and a recognized lack of not only public understanding of laws related to trails but also detailed information regarding the design of roadway and trail intersections.

Policy change and safety education recommendations

Increase awareness and understanding of New York Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 1151 with trail users, motorists, and law enforcement officials:

  • Urge trail managers to work with highway officials to install "yield to pedestrian signs" at crosswalk-marked road and trail intersections.
  • Distribute news releases and place articles in trail newsletters to inform the public of Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 1151 and how it also applies to trail users and motorists at road and trail intersections.

Refine or clarify New York's Vehicle and Traffic Law to address the unique needs of road and trail intersections:

  • Clarify whether presently Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 1151 or Section 1152 applies to trails with unmarked crosswalks.
  • Clarify or amend New York Vehicle and Traffic Law so that road and trail intersections without marked crosswalks are treated the same as road intersections with unmarked crosswalks.
  • Inform the general public of the need to obey Section 1151 of the Vehicle and Traffic Law in more instances than when they see crosswalk striping.
  • Amend Vehicle and Traffic Law Section 110 part (a) to include pedestrian and bicycle paths as well as sidewalks within the definition.

Improve road and trail intersection crash reporting through public education and more detailed data collection:

  • Encourage trail groups and trail managers to ensure their constituents are aware of the requirements of New York Vehicle and Traffic Law Sections 605, 1240 and 1241, possibly by including a short reminder in trail brochures, newsletters, or other organizational materials.
  • Undertake efforts to ensure that law enforcement personnel include trail names and locations when preparing reports for crashes that occur at road and trail intersections.
  • Review State accident report forms to determine if alterations can be made to make it easier to identify whether a crash occurred at a road and trail intersection.

Increase attention to, funding for, and improve communication surrounding maintenance of road and trail intersections:

  • Encourage volunteer trail adopters to assist with regular trimming at road and trail intersections.
  • Encourage trail managers to meet periodically with their state, county and local highway officials to discuss roles and responsibilities regarding maintenance and safety at their trail and road intersections.
  • Encourage trail managers and trail groups to work with highway officials to find new and creative sources of funding for trail maintenance and management. intersections.

photo: The Seurat figures along the Mississippi
Traffic calming measures at a trail crossing (from Road and Trail Intersection Safety)

Design Recommendations

The design recommendations presented are not intended to replace or conflict with current guidelines and standards, but to supplement and clarify these guidelines and standards for all those responsible for design, construction and maintenance of road and trail intersections.

Design intersections of trails and roadways with the appropriate assignment of right of way:

  • Place STOP signs or YIELD signs on a trail approach to an intersection to specifically assign the right-of-way to vehicles in the roadway.
  • Consider assigning the right-of-way to trail users using STOP signs or traffic control signals when there are large volumes of trail users and when the volume of vehicular traffic becomes so great that trail users have difficulty crossing the roadway.

Design intersections of trails and roadways to alert trail users and road users of an approaching crossing:

  • Design crossings to be perpendicular to the roadway so trail users will be in a position where they can readily see approaching traffic from both directions and both trail users and motorists can take appropriate actions.
  • Consider the use of warning signs, marked crosswalks, or flashing signals as appropriate to the needs and conditions.

Design roadways and trails to minimize risk at crossings:

  • Consider use of refuge islands for crossing multiple lane roadways or high volume two-lane roadways.
  • At crossings of high volume or high speed multi-lane roadways where a refuge island is used, consider completely offsetting the crossing to keep trail users from "darting out" into the lane of traffic on the opposite side of the refuge island.
  • As an alternative to the erection of trail head barriers, split the trail into two separate narrower paths at the entrance by using a raised island or an area landscaped with low shrubs, ground covers or perennial flowers.
  • In cases where there is a steep descent approaching a crossing, design a curve or bend in the trail at the bottom of the descent along with a barrier to keep bicyclists from leaving the trail and coasting into the roadway.
  • Consider using traffic-calming measures, such as a textured or raised crosswalk, a roundabout or planting median, to slow vehicles as they approach road and trail intersections.

Next Steps

Parks & Trails New York encourages all who read this draft report to offer comments and suggestions for additions and corrections. The report is intended to serve as the basis for additional activities designed to raise awareness of road and trail intersection safety and as a vehicle for stimulating conversation and examination of this issue that will lead to actions that can provide lasting benefit for everyone.

To fulfill these goals, Parks & Trails New York plans to:

  • Organize regional forums where stakeholder groups can meet and discuss the report's recommendations and explore ways to acquire resources for road and trail intersection safety enhancements
  • In cooperation with the NYS Canal Corporation and County Traffic Safety Boards, create and implement, on a pilot basis, a driver/trail user/law enforcement personnel safety education campaign
  • Invite public comment on the draft report and incorporate those comments into a final report that is made freely available to the public through the Parks & Trails New York website.

- Download final report, 82 pages (pdf 2.0 mb)

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