On urban trails, trouble strikes quickly
That's the way Cathy Wedlund described a chance collision that wrung the joy out of the daily walks she's loved for years, nearly killed her dog and worse -- far, far worse -- ended the life of a good man.
Three months after it happened, the incident is still frightening and fresh in her mind. She and her husband, Eric, were taking their terrier, Tulee, for a walk along the Interurban Trail last July.
Two cyclists came down a hill and turned a sharp corner -- right where the Wedlunds were walking with Tulee.
The collision sent the little dog flying backward. One of the cyclists flew headfirst off his bike into the pavement.
Twelve days later, that cyclist, Wendell Hultman, died of his injuries.
He was a husband, a father and a friend to many in the local cycling community.
He also was known for his experience and safe cycling habits.
The incident left the Wedlunds wondering what it takes to make the trail safer for everyone. It's a valid question, especially as both the city and state are encouraging people to get out of their cars and onto their bikes.
After learning about what happened to Wendell Hultman, local leaders are talking about safety, too.
Something has to be done, they say.
The question is, what?
Issues on both sides
Talk to walkers about trails and you'll probably hear something like this: "It's those darn bicycle riders. It's scary. You're walking your dog and they go zipping by."
That's from Faye Potter, who takes her miniature poodle Rosey out for a stroll on the Interurban while riding in a power scooter. She wishes cyclists would just slow down.
Frank Cooper has walked the Interurban Trail for decades. In his experience, most cyclists are good about giving him a loud "on your left" or a DING, DING with a bell as they pass. The problem, he said, is those cyclists he doesn't hear coming.
"When I'm walking, I'm daydreaming, and I'm a million years away," he said. "Then, all the sudden, BAM, there's someone coming by. It makes you jump."
Talk to cyclists, and they, too, have stories to tell. Stories about headphone-wearing joggers taking a U-turn right into their paths. Stories about a clump of chatty moms pushing baby strollers across the entire width of the trail. Stories of near misses with dogs that suddenly dash across the path.
Cars and bicycles mixing on roads usually grab the headlines. Trails present their own dangers, too.
"People think about trails as the safe place to ride," said Kristin Kinnamon of Marysville, an avid cyclist and formerly a board president of Bicycle Alliance of Washington, a statewide advocacy and education group. "The truth is trails can be a lot less predictable place than the road."
Especially dangerous, she said, are children and dogs. She's familiar with several incidents where cyclists got tangled up with dogs or their leashes.
It's hard to get a clear picture of how many accidents take place on the InterurbanTrail, which begins at 41st Street in Everett and runs south toward Seattle.
Citywide, there were 93 reported collisions involving bicycles between 2005 and 2007, according to the Everett Bicycle Master Plan. All but five involved a motor vehicle.
Those numbers don't represent bicycle collisions or other types of accidents that occur on the Interurban Trail.
Many aren't reported. That's usually because crashes take place off public roadways.
No official accident report exists with the city of Everett for the collision that claimed Wendell Hultman's life.
The issue came to the attention of city leaders weeks later only after the Wedlunds called Councilman Ron Gipson. When he started looking into the issue, he found that the city of Everett gives little guidance for trails.
"My concern is that other cities have rules of the road," Gipson said.
The city of Everett already was working on a citywide bike map. Hultman's death is causing Everett officials "to review where we are at," said city spokeswoman Kate Reardon. Recommendations on how the trail could be improved are expected by year's end.
Everett does have a few guidelines: No bicycles on unpaved trails, a speed limit on trails of 15 mph, and an admonishment to not travel faster "than is reasonable and prudent under the existing conditions." At the site of the crash involving Hultman, the trail is divided into two with a yellow line and a sign on top of the hill warns of a 9 percent grade.
Neither the state, the county or Everett requires bicyclists to wear helmets. In Everett, there are no signs that advise users of proper conduct and no speed limit signs.
Jan Johnson, a retired high school history teacher from Edmonds, has guided other cyclists for the Cascade Bicycle Club since before cyclists wore Lycra.
She described a tale of two Interurban Trails: one that's nearly empty in winter but on nice summer weekends is clogged.
"There are walkers, little children, people trying to race, people on upright bikes, people in groups, marathoners -- all using the trail," she said. "It's so dangerous I can't stand it."
She avoids using trails on those days. When she does, she adheres to common sense guidelines: She stays right, passes to the left and keeps her speed reasonable. She warns walkers she's coming by.
Even with that, she's gotten hurt.
Johnson crashed after coming around a hairpin turn on the Interurban Trail in Everett.
"These little boys came around the corner on bikes towards me," she said. "They took up the entire sidewalk."
She ran into a concrete bulkhead trying to avoid the boys. She wasn't seriously injured -- not that they stopped to check.
The kind of catastrophic collision that happened to Wendell Hultman is unusual, she said. In her experience, what's more common are accidents caused by inattention: a cyclist turns his eyes away from the trail and crashes.
That's exactly what happened on the Centennial Trail when a woman got distracted by an eagle soaring through the air and then ran her bike into a short post called a bollard, according to a Snohomish County parks official.
While it's hard to prevent human error, the people who build busy urban trails have found that good design can improve safety.
Ideas for improvement
Two major mixed-use trails exist in Snohomish County: the Interurban and the Centennial trails.
Both traverse roads and merge with sidewalks or streets in places.
Both contain obstacles such as bollards and maze gates that are meant to prevent motorized vehicles from entering the trails or slow people down before an intersection.
Just about everyone has an idea on how to improve the trails.
Two experts who deal with the uber-busy Burke-Gilman Trail in King County offered what they've learned about trail safety: Reiner Blanco, a traffic engineer and supervisor with Seattle's Department of Transportation, and Tom Eksten, who was involved in developing the Burke-Gilman Trail and just about every other trail project in King County in his 30-year role as a county project manager. He's now a consultant and working with Snohomish County on developing a trail management plan.
Here's what they said:
Do away with bumps and obstructions on the trail. Speed bumps or anything that could send a cyclist flying are probably not a good idea, Blanco said. Seattle is doing away with bollards and maze gates, which end up causing more problems than they prevent, he said. Snohomish County is minimizing the number of bollards, but not completely eliminating them since they keep motorized vehicles off the trail, Eksten said.
Keep a close eye on maintenance. Seattle workers regularly travel the length of the trail, taking note of buckles in the pavement that need to be smoothed or bushes that need to be trimmed.
Treat more hazardous sections of the trail like roads. Put in warning signs, slow the speed and paint a yellow line down the center, Eksten said. "If we had to narrow the trail or put in a sharper curve for any reason, we want people to know that before they get there," he said. "Just like roadways."
Create uniform rules across jurisdictions. It's typical for trails to cross multiple cities and even counties, Eksten said. Keep things simple for trail users by passing laws that are the same regardless if someone is on the trail in Lynnwood, unincorporated Snohomish County or Everett. Eksten noted that Snohomish County has few "rules of the road" and they "certainly aren't what they could be."
Make expectations clear to users. Place signs near restrooms or parking lots that explain some basic trail etiquette or rules such as "keep right" or "use bell or voice when passing."
Educate users about the dangers of dogs. The No. 1 cause of falls along the Burke-Gilman Trail involve dogs, Eksten said. Extendable leashes that retract out on a thin line can be particularly problematic because they are harder to see and because dogs have more room to bolt out unexpectedly in front of an oncoming cyclist. Even standard 8-foot leashes can cause problems if they are stretched across the trail like a trip wire. Walkers need to be aware of other users and keep dogs under control, he said.
Bicycles should keep conditions in mind. Seattle doesn't have a speed limit on its trails because there's no money for enforcement, Blanco said. The city expects cyclists to yield to pedestrians, keep speed in check and cycle to conditions. "We don't expect cyclists to be traveling at 40 miles per hour," he said. "'Use to conditions' means that if grandma and grandpa are out with their dog, be empathetic. It's not nice to zoom by them within inches."
Consider speed limits. Posting speed limits is worthwhile because it gives cyclists a number to keep in mind, Eksten said. "The hope would be all cyclists would have an awareness of other users of the trail, but that's not always the case," he said.
Enforce the rules. Eksten said he realizes cities and counties are strapped for cash, but signs with speed limits are only effective if they're enforced. "Until there's an established mind-set the rules of the road will be enforced, you are relying on common courtesy," he said. "That's not the kind of thing you can legislate."
Widen paths. At busy points in the trail, increasing the width of the trail gives more room for passing, Eksten said.
Widen shoulders for walkers. If there's room, Eksten said, a wide shoulder where runners and walkers can stay completely off the paved traffic lane is a safe option.
Separate wheeled and foot traffic. In some cases, it also works well to split the path in two, giving walkers and cyclists their own paths. That's what's done at the trail on Green Lake.
Enlist the public's help. In Snohomish County, volunteers could be out to remind about the rules of the road or answer questions or take incident reports, Eksten suggested.
Encourage good trail etiquette. The city, with the help of volunteers from the Cascade Bicycle Club, went door-to-door trying to educate people on how to get along on trails. That included teaching people basic trail etiquette, such as walkers staying right.
Just about everybody agrees that probably the best ways to prevent tragedies are to follow trail etiquette and be considerate of others.
That's no easy task.
A tragic accident
The morning of July 11, Warren Bare called his friend Wendell Hultman and they agreed to go for a ride. It was a Monday.
He and Hultman were longtime cycling buddies. On that day, they met at a park and planned to cycle to a bakery in Everett. The trip was uneventful until they reached a steep hill with a sharp turn at the bottom, located just beyond where the trail skirts past Cascade High School.
Bare remembers coasting down the hill. Two teenage girls were on the right side of the trail. He moved to the left to give them some space, while his friend followed behind.
"He stayed left and started braking," Bare said.
The cyclists couldn't see the Wedlunds walking their dog on the trail just around the curve. Some bushes along the edge of the trail made it difficult to see; they've since been trimmed.
Eric and Cathy Wedlund had no way to know two cyclists were coming, either. They were headed in the same direction and heard nothing before the accident.
The people involved don't agree on what happened next.
The Wedlunds are adamant that they were walking on the left side of the trail with their dog, Tulee, on a leash between them. Eric Wedlund has a powerful memory of watching a bicycle tire hit his dog.
"She got bent in a V," he said. "Then I didn't see her anymore. It happened so fast. … She's screaming and I figure my dog is going to die."
Bare is just as adamant that his friend's tire got tangled in the dog's thin leash.
"There was a dog and a leash in front of him," Bare said. "His bike tire hit the leash and drew the dog backward."
Whatever happened, the result is the same. Hultman was thrown off his bike during the incident with devastating results.
"His helmet got cracked all to pieces," Bare said. "I got my phone out and called 911."
Eric Wedlund drove their dog to the vet while Cathy Wedlund stayed to offer what help she could.
Wendell Hultman, age 73, died July 23 at the hospital from his injuries.
He was a longtime resident of Mukilteo. After serving in the U.S. Marines, he owned and operated an auto parts store in Seattle. He was a well-known fixture in the local cycling community. He even had his own cycle route in Everett known as the "Wendell Wiggle."
Rob Brown, a fellow member of the Cascade Bicycle Club, posted this online after his friend's death: "Although reserved in his manner, Wendell was quick to help anyone with an extra tube and a quick change of their flat. Using the lightest of equipment he learned to change flats quickly. Not a pretentious guy, he had the most up-to-date equipment but still wore a cheap plastic shower cap over his helmet when it started to rain. After all, it was the lightest answer."
Hultman loved bicycling partly because of the elegant, simple mechanics of it, Bare said. His friend grew up with a wrench in his hand, and used to love to build cars that could outshine and out-muscle anything while cruising Colby. He was married and had grown children and grandchildren.
After the crash, people who knew him were shocked. He was known as "Mr. Safety."
"They couldn't believe that would happen to Wendell on a trail," Bare said.
The Wedlunds are OK -- at least physically. Their dog, Tulee, required emergency care but eventually recovered.
Daily walks along the trail aren't the same for the couple. Tulee visibly shook when the couple tried to take the dog back to the site of the crash recently. Words can't begin to capture the agony of being a part of an incident that ended a man's life, even if you feel, as the Wedlunds do, that they were doing nothing wrong.
Bare is just sorry it happened to his friend.
It's easy to blame and to take sides.
This story is not about that; it's about preventing another tragedy.
Everyone agrees with that.
ETIQUETTE ON THE TRAIL
All trail users
• Show courtesy to other trail users at all times.
• Use the right side of the trail except when otherwise designated.
• Always pass on the left.
• Respect the rights of property owners.
• Keep dogs on leash (maximum length 8 feet) and remove pet feces from trail.
•You are responsible for the safe operation of your vehicle under state law.
• Yield to pedestrians.
• Give audible warning when passing pedestrians or other bicyclists.
• Ride at a safe speed. Slow down and form a single file in congested conditions, reduced visibility, and other hazardous conditions.
• Stay to the right side of the trail except when otherwise designated.
• Watch for other trail users.
• Be especially alert when running.
• Listen for audible signals and allow faster trail users (runners and bicyclists) to pass safely.
• Consider using alternate routes if you want to travel faster than conditions permit.
Source: Seattle Bicycle & Pedestrian Program
RESOURCES FOR CYCLISTS
B.I.K.E.S. Club of Snohomish County
Recreational bicycle club that promotes cycling for fun and exercise. www.bikesclub.org
Cascade Bicycle Club
Based in Seattle, this nonprofit serves more than 14,000 members. Offers classes for beginners and organized bike rides. www.cascade.org, 206-522-BIKE
Bicycle Alliance of Washington
Advocacy group for cyclists. Web sites includes a "bicycle watchdog" feature that allows people to report safety hazards on trails. www.bicyclealliance.org, 206-224-9252
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