Shared responsibility on a shared trail

The Millstone readership is probably tiring of all the letters regarding the OVRT and the issue of shared use, with ensuing comments arguing both sides. Most of what I have read to date is being written by people without any personal experience with motorized vehicles or use of a shared multi-use trail. Arguments against a shared trail have been speculative and without merit, supported by irrelevant references to accidents, injuries, and deaths sustained by motorized vehicle operators in environments or on trails that are totally unlike the roughly 2 km of straight-line rail trail that passes through Almonte.

I am fully supportive of a shared multi-use trail, even though I will not be using it with a motorized vehicle. Why do I support it? Because it simply makes sense, and because I do not have any qualms about sharing the trail with any other user, regardless of their preferred means of use.

Who am I, to have an opinion on this issue? I am just someone that has snowmobiled (and still do, but on private land… my Scottish heritage doesn’t permit me to frivolously spend hundreds of dollars on registration, licensing, insurance, club membership, trail passes, and appropriate clothing for long runs that may never materialize when Mother Nature doesn’t provide sufficient snowfall). Back in the early ‘70s, we did enjoy several years of snowmobiling on trails across private lands and public hydro lines, but after a few years of next to no snow, we gave up the sport. We then turned to cross-country skiing for a number of years, as there was usually enough snow for that sport. We also snow-shoe in winter, weather and snow conditions permitting.

We cycled for a number of years, but living in the country and seeing traffic increasing with each new house being built in the neighbourhood, we eventually gave up that activity. And, no, it wasn’t because of the road surfaces, which at that time, were actual loose-gravel roads… nothing like rural roads of today.

Growing up on the farm, I have also been a horseback rider, and driven a horse and sleigh.

While I have never driven an ATV on a trail run, I have used my brothers’ ATV, with trailer attached, to remove brush or tree limbs from our property. I have nothing against owning or riding an ATV, I just don’t have a desire (or the money) to do so. Nor have I had a desire to operate a dirt bike or motorcycle.

But what I currently do, and have been doing for several years, is walk trails… a lot of trails… frequently, over long distances, and durations. I love the peace and quiet of trails as I enjoy looking for, and capturing on camera, birds, animals, insects, and other wonders of nature. I have walked many of the trails and bike paths in the west end of Ottawa, several sections of the K&P trail, all the trails around Carleton Place and Beckwith, the Baird Trail near Lanark, High Lonesome Trail near Pakenham, etc., as well as most of the road allowances at the end of rural roads that have ‘No Exit’ postings, and that are used by ATVers and snowmobilers.

So, who am I to have an opinion? I am someone that has experienced just about every form of use that a shared multi-use trail is likely to see. Fortunately, I am still fully mobile, so I have never experienced the use of a wheelchair or other mobility-impaired assistive device. But unlike many of the letter writers on the subject, as a walker, I have experienced many encounters with other users of shared trails, including other walkers, joggers, cyclists, horseback riders, dirt bikers, ATVers, and snowmobilers.

The purpose of this letter is simply to point out the obvious, but something that many people seem to ignore… the responsibilities that each user of any trail must own.

There are two distinct encounters between users on a trail: meeting another user coming from the opposite direction; and, being passed by another user travelling in the same direction.

When meeting another user coming from the opposite direction, a person has both sight and sound to warn of the impending approach (unless the person is hearing-impaired, they still have sight. If they are visually impaired, I am not sure any trail is safe, without accompaniment). In this case both parties can either see, or hear, or both, each other and can act appropriately to the situation. All it takes is a little courtesy and common sense to ensure a safe and uneventful meeting. Even more respectful is a smile and wave to acknowledge each other.

When being approached from behind by another user travelling in the same direction, sound is the primary indicator. This is where the responsibilities of each party take on even greater importance.

When users are all travelling in the same direction, it is almost inevitable that an encounter approaching from behind will occur: a wheelchair will be overtaken by a walker, both will in turn be overtaken by a jogger, with a cyclist overtaking all three, and an ATV doing the same. Each will be relying on sound only, and this is where a responsibility must be owned… sound alone is not enough… sight must be employed. That means that every user of the trail must practice constant vigilance of the trail behind. Fortunately, because the trail is a rail bed, it is relatively straight with good sight lines, so if the user checks their back trail occasionally, other approaching users should be spotted in sufficient time to react.

ATVs (or snowmobiles in the winter) should be heard, when approaching from behind, from sufficient distance to give appropriate warning. Cyclists have a responsibility to use a bell, and should do so from a respectable distance, to warn of their approach.

Which brings me to another responsibility. When an encounter with another user occurs, it is the responsibility of each user to slow down, move to the side of the trail, and meet or pass cautiously (and courteously, and respectfully).

Snowmobilers and ATVers are subject to regulations under Acts specific to the sport, as well as the Highway Traffic Act, which also applies to cyclists. In addition to the MTO regulations, the snowmobile and ATV associations and local clubs have rules for use of the trails. Adherence to those regulations and rules is the responsibility of the motorized vehicle operators.

Unfortunately, there are no such regulations or rules that apply to wheelchairs, walkers, joggers, horseback riders, etc., and only common sense applies. As a nature lover, I am constantly listening for the songs of birds, the sounds of animals, or just the sounds of nature, so my hearing is not impaired while I walk. However, I have encountered many walkers, joggers, and cyclists who are listening to music with ear buds, so they are less likely to hear other users approaching from behind. These people must take responsibility for that hearing impairment and be even more vigilant of the trail behind them.

I have had close encounters with cyclists approaching from the rear, and there was usually shared fault: the cyclist failed to give sufficient warning, either not ringing their bell period, or ringing when too close and causing a startled reaction on my part; and I was usually in the act of trying to locate or photograph a bird in the bushes or trees, and not paying enough attention to the back trail. These encounters have not prompted me to stay away from trails that are used by cyclists.

If everyone would just take responsibility for their own actions, use simple common sense, courtesy, and respect for each other and their choice of activity, there is no reason for anyone not to embrace and enjoy a shared multi-use trail.

Stu Thompson