Photo (of a safe interaction) by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr.

A man on a bike hit an 81-year-old woman walking on the Four Mile Run trail, ARLnow reports, and the woman subsequently died of the injuries. Do we need better consensus on how to alert pedestrians to passing cyclists?

The 62-year-old cyclist was heading down a hill and shouted “on your left” to warn the woman. Instead of either moving right or just being alert, she apparently turned around in a way that moved to the left, while exclaiming “what?” The cyclist then struck her, she fell, and her head hit the ground.

Update: ARLnow is now also reporting that the cyclist rang a bell as well as calling out.

Whether or not this particular cyclist did something wrong, the first rule always must be that people riding bikes need to be careful around pedestrians. Daniel Hoagland, WABA’s Bicycle Ambassador, wrote in an email:

Pedestrians are unpredictable and vulnerable, which is a bad combination (and doesn’t even get into things like pets and children and the mobility-impaired), and bicyclists should be prepared to slow down to whatever speed is necessary to ensure that they can react safely to whatever a pedestrian does.

WashCycle points out a comment from rcannon100 on the BikeArlington forum:

If the sequence is (a) signal (b) unanticipated response from pedestrian (c) collision, then you are calling too close. You need to call far enough back that when the pedestrian “reacts,” you can respond appropriately.

On the other hand, as others noted, the cyclist might not have even been moving very fast; sadly, even a low-speed collision can turn into a fatal injury for a senior citizen.

What is the best way to alert pedestrians?

Some suggested that a bell is better than a shouted warning, partly because it’s audible from farther away. What kind of warning is the right one? Does “on your left” actually lead many people to move left instead of watching out to the left?

There seems to be significant differences of opinion on what kind of audible warning a cyclist should give. In a recent comment thread, most people agreed that a driver honking at a cyclist is not helpful but rather feels like intimidation. But people didn’t agree about the ped-bike interaction.

Some people who walk on multi-use trails said they wanted to hear a warning or bell, while others feel like hearing a bell sounds like an arrogant command to move over instead of a helpful alert for safety.

What do you think? Please give your opinions in the form below.

Regardless of what warning turns out to be the consensus, pedestrians won’t be able to hear an audible warning if headphones or other devices make it impossible to hear anything. Cyclists on a multi-use trail need to realize they are the less vulnerable road user and take care to react to unpredictable pedestrian moves, but people walking or jogging also should recognize that they’re on a shared trail where cyclists will travel at some speed and try to be predictable, keep pets on short leashes, and so on.

By that token, sidewalks aren’t the same as trails. If a person on a bike wants to use a sidewalk, they must act like guests, deferring to pedestrians no matter how slowly they want to walk or how much they are blocking the path. To travel faster, ride in the road.

The survey is now closed. We will post results shortly.

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David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.