Situational Awareness on the Trail

Editor’s note: This “Taking to the Trails” column first appeared in The Londonderry Times newspaper.

By Paul Margolin, Londonderry Trailways

Accidents happen. It’s unfortunate, but they do. Because accidents are random and infrequent, we don’t expect them, but maybe that’s part of the problem. If we recognize and prepare for the risks in our everyday life, we can reduce the likelihood of accidents and the damage or injury that can result.

The opening of the lovely Little Cohas Marsh segment 20 months ago, combined with the onset of COVID-19 have drawn thousands more visitors to the Rail Trail, and all are welcome. Nevertheless, just like traffic on our roads, the more people on the Trail, the greater the possibility of an accident. So we ask you to help us cultivate “safety awareness” when you come for a walk, jog or ride. Think of it as the equivalent of driving defensively, but on the Trail.

Stay Alert and Keep Right

Trailways is taking measures to make the Rail Trail as safe as possible for everyone to enjoy. We have collaborated with the Londonderry Police, Fire and Public Works departments to upgrade our safety signage. The main messages are to stay on the right side of the pavement; keep kids and pets under control, out of harm’s way; and if you are riding a bike or some other recreational device, please keep your speed down and alert people ahead of you that you are approaching.

You will now see “STOP” freshly painted on the pavement at all intersections to ensure that trail users pause to check for traffic before crossing. Look for a Rail Trail welcome sign at the three trailheads that lays out the “rules of the road” for everyone’s safety, and notice the new signs posted along the path reminding us to keep to the right and pass on the left.

What can happen?

Now let’s be clear: the Rail Trail is a very safe place. But it takes everybody’s cooperation to keep it so. What can go wrong? Well, we are talking about a 4.5-mile public thoroughfare surrounded by woods that is available to the public 24/7. Dusk and dawn are somewhat risky times to be on the trail; visibility is reduced, and you are a mile or two from help if you hurt yourself. Pairing up with a friend is a good way to stay safe at these times, especially during months of low temperatures and with snow or ice on the path.

At least twice in the last 12 months, a tree has fallen on the trail that required both walkers and riders to climb, with some difficulty, over the trunk and large branches in order to pass—or to turn back. In the peat bog segment, one trunk of a large tree snapped and its top came to rest precariously against another tree, leaving many long arms of its branches looming over the path. We needed a tree service to dispatch that for us.

Rail trails were originally built to provide a straight and level rail bed for the trains to run on. Bends and dips were avoided or minimized by constructing “cuts and fills”; cuts through solid rock to mitigate uphill segments, and embankments that filled downhill gaps. Londonderry’s rail bed is relatively level with the forest floor, but we have a fill a short distance south of the North School trailhead that features steep, 20-foot drop-offs. Derry and Windham have longer fills that rise over 30 feet. So beware: if you take your eyes off the trail when you’re on a vehicle, you may be courting disaster.

Families walking or biking on the trail have an opportunity to educate their kids about keeping themselves safe. Bikers, skaters and those on electric vehicles need to check their speed around other trail users and avoid racing. Remember: the Trail is pretty long, but only 10 feet wide.

Situational Awareness

It can get pretty busy on nice days, particularly on weekends, so it’s important to always look out for your personal safety. Here are some precautionary strategies to keep you mentally prepared:

  • Develop your “situational awareness”. This concept has been used in aviation, healthcare and the military for years. It simply means knowing what is going on around you. Always be aware of your immediate environment.
  • Accidents can happen to anybody. Even if you are exercising caution, that doesn’t mean others are. Your safety is ultimately in your own hands.
  • Beware of a false sense of security. Become an active participant instead of a passive viewer.
  • Trust your gut and make a habit of double-checking whatever it tells you. Learn to “anticipate.”
  • Follow the rules and safety precautions posted on the trail.
  • Note that mile markers are posted every half mile, in case you ever need to identify your bearings on the Trail.

Let’s help each other stay safe. Having situational awareness and respect for fellow trail users will enable us to keep the Londonderry Rail Trail accident-free. For more Rail Trail news, announcements and trail photos, check out our Londonderry Trailways website at: http://www.londonderrytrails.org.

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