Trails are usually a great way to avoid car traffic. But sometimes, both by accident and not, drivers end up on them. It's a bizarre problem, but it happens often enough that it is important to remember what to do in case you find yourself facing down a car on the W&OD or the Metropolitan Branch trails.
People driving onto trails in their vehicle is a pretty rare event but not so rare that there aren't usually one examples per year. Most recently we've seen drivers on the Metropolitan Branch Trail in DC and on the Four Mile Run trail in Alexandria.
There's no set reason why people might drive onto trails. In the Four Mile Run case, the Washington Post speculated that it was “to get around rush-hour traffic.” One man who drove onto the W&OD trail back in 2013 did so because he was visiting from Florida and following his GPS too closely. 2013 was a bad year in particular for the W&OD, with one drunk driver terrorizing trail users (and hitting one cyclist) just a month before the Florida man's incident.
But regardless the reason for a car being on the trail, it's almost always extremely dangerous. People rightly don't expect to see any sort of vehicle on a trail (except the occasional maintenance vehicle) and may be caught off guard with no time to recover. Even if someone does spot a vehicle, there may not be any space to get out of the way. In cases where the police have stopped drivers on the trail, the penalties have been severe, and rightfully so.
Fully blocking cars might not be the best solution
When a car does turn up on a trail, a lot of people's first suggestion is to put up bollards or a gate to make it hard for a car or truck to drive onto the trail. It's a popular solution because it seems pretty simple, but the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA) actually recommends bollards only after a “documented history of intrusion” (i.e. drivers that keep messing up). That's because bollards (especially ones that aren't well thought out or poorly designed) can be a big hazard themselves, and they can make it harder for everyone, not just drivers, to access a trail.
Besides, a bollard in the future won't help someone dealing with a driver on the trail today. But when I tried to look up what someone should do in case they spot a car on the trail, I actually didn't see any guidance on what to do if you are on the trail and you happen to see a car heading towards you.
What should you do if you see a car on the trail?
To get some advice I reached out to both the Fairfax County Police Department and the Metropolitan Police Department to ask what they recommend if you find yourself dealing with a driver on the trail (or if somehow, you are that driver). In both cases their advice was nearly the same: make sure you're safe, call 911, and warn others, in that order.
It's simple advice, but it is important to remember and even practice the simple advice before panic sets in. That's why some cyclists like to call out license plate numbers whenever they see bad driving. It may help them in a crash one day.
So if you need to call 911 then remember the license plate number (remember, shouting helps) and the direction the vehicle is traveling. If you can guess at the nearest intersection that may help as well.
Hopefully driving on trails is a problem that will remain rare. But it pays to be prepared. Have you seen a driver on a bicycle or pedestrian trail? What did you do? Tell us your experience and advice in the comments.