Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bike Patrol: Capital Crescent Edition

It’s 7 a.m, the height of rush hour. But this isn’t the Beltway. It’s the Capital Crescent Trail –a favorite bike commuter route. Officer Donald Brew, with the Maryland National Capital Park Police is on patrol on his Trek bicycle. Is bike commuting really that popular?
“More than ever, more than ever. Part of it is a boom in fitness—everyone wants to get in that workout. But also, it’s a matter of convenience. People start to realize, ‘ I could probably get to work much faster than sitting in rush hour.’”

Brew says the key to keeping the trail safe for the cyclists, the joggers and the dog walkers isn’t enforcement. It’s courtesy. A cyclist passes us, but not before he rings his bell, calls out “On your left!” and gives us plenty of clearance. He does the same as he then passes a woman out for a walk. She’s got headphones on.

Brew comments, “He gets a gold star. I don’t know about the pedestrian, though. One of our trail safety tips is: if you have to have your music on? Try to keep one ear free. He did warn that he was passing, but if you notice, there was no reaction from her. So she probably never heard him say he was passing left. She probably never heard the bell ring.”

On the trail, just as on area roadways, everyone seems to notice the other guy’s mistakes or bone-headed moves. Brew says “Sometimes, the bikers have to take themselves off the bike” and look at the situation from the walker’s point of view. And the same goes for those joggers and walkers, he says they need to think of how a cyclist has to navigate the trail. “It goes both ways. It’s all about respect; it’s a two way street.”

We haven’t gone far when a cyclist flags down Officer Brew. There’s been a collision. We can see from a distance that two people are down on the ground. A male cyclist is bleeding from just over the ear. He’s on his back, winded and jarred. A female pedestrian is sitting up, propped up against a friend who supports her. She’s cut on her face, her hands, her arms and her hip. She looks shaken up.

A woman who saw the collision says the cyclist and pedestrian were headed in the same direction, with the cyclist trailing the pedestrian. The witness says the pedestrian suddenly made a U-turn, just as the cyclist was swinging wide to pass her. That’s when the two collided—head on. The witness, who didn’t want to be named, tells me she is a runner and uses the trail when she bikes: “You just can’t be too cautious. When you’re a bicyclist, you want to verbally, or with a bell let them [pedestrians] know that you’re coming behind them. When you’re a runner or a just have to be so cautious. I ride fairly fast as well, and you know, it scares you, because you realize you should just be extra cautious and not ride so fast.”

In recent weeks there was another crash, involving two cyclists. One was trying to pass a pedestrian when the two cyclists hit head-on. One suffered broken ribs, the other ended up in intensive care.

Brew points out to me later that there is a 15 mile an hour speed limit on the trail. He knows it irks lots of cyclists. He’s a racer himself but says, “Not everyone is a pro cyclist with the reflexes of a cat…a lot of people need that cushion of time over distance. Traveling at 15 mph allows you to be able to react safely. “

Brew’s been patrolling by bike for two years and had to go through training for it. One of the basic skills for a bike patrol officer: learning how to pursue a suspect who figures getting away is as easy as heading for the nearest staircase. Brew says, he can handle that: “Which is the most fun part actually, learning how to ride up and down stairs.”

And police on bikes do carry weapons. “We learn how to draw a weapon from the bike, skid to a stop and shoot a target. We also learn how to go into a skid, lay on our backs while still straddling the bike and shoot from the ground, because if you’re chasing a suspect at a high speed, and a suspect turns around and points a gun at you-- it’s not a situation you ever want to find yourself in, but we have to practice it.”

Brew says two things are particularly troublesome on the trail: pets on long leashes which are allowed to stretch across the trail, and children who are still learning to handle a bike plopped in the thick of the action on a weekend. He says diplomatically: “It might not be the best place to take the training wheels off for the first time and teach them how to ride.”

Brew sets a good example as I go on this early morning ride-along. His pace is steady, he calls out to cyclists and pedestrians as he passes, and he looks out for those in trouble. But when he’s on his own bike on his own time? He admits, it would be tempting to streak through an intersection here and there, especially when there’s little traffic.

“That really crosses your mind a lot, but I think I need to be a good example… one bad cyclist can ruin it for 50 bicyclists. If they see that one person blow through a red light, or blow through a stop sign, they’re gonna say “See? All cyclists are bad.”


  1. I heard about this collision on the radio on Saturday morning. As a cyclist who uses the CCT and other trails, I am wondering whether the cyclist gave an audible signal (e.g., "passing on your left" -- which cyclists should do before passing) and whether the pedestrian was wearing headphones/earbuds in both ears (which they shouldn't). Also, how are the crash victims doing?

  2. Thanks for checking back. Both were treated and released. There's no indication that the jogger was wearing earphones, I will work to confirm that, but nothing at the scene to suggest that. And the one witness WTOP spoke with said she did not hear the cyclist give an audible signal, but that too is preliminary and I will check back with Officer Brew.