In May 2012, Garry Wharton was driving down Central Sarasota Parkway when he saw a bicyclist approaching the street’s intersection with the Legacy Trail. The driver in front of him slammed on his brakes, but the driver behind Wharton wasn’t paying attention — and crashed into the back of his car.
The accident was the result of the misunderstanding of the rules of the road at the trail’s intersection with Central Sarasota Parkway: Who has the right of way? The trail users are warned with a sign that cross traffic does not stop, but motorists see the “Bike X-ing” paint and caution signage.
“The bikers are seeing one thing; the motorists are seeing another thing,” said Wharton, president elect of the Palmer Ranch Master Property Owners Association.
When the trail opened in 2008, it was marked with a beacon that flashed yellow when a trail user activated it. Motorists were confused, though, as to whether they were supposed to slow down and proceed with caution or stop because the light was not red.
In 2012, at the request of the Palmer Ranch Communities Coalition, the crossing was modified: The beacon was removed, and the painted markings changed from stripes across the intersection to “Bike X-ing.” A bicycle-and-pedestrian caution sign was installed to alert drivers, and trail users were warned on their stop signs that cross traffic does not stop because motorists have the right of way.
However, drivers see the “Bike X-ing” markings and caution sign and believe trail users have the right of way. The mixed-message resulted in Wharton’s fender-bender.
After it received complaints about the intersection during a board meeting, members of the Palmer Ranch Master Property Owners Association approached their county commissioner, Nora Patterson, this summer to reconsider how to mark the trail crossing to clear up uncertainty. Before going further, Wharton made sure he had the full support of the board.
“I told them I didn’t want to speak to Nora Patterson as Garry Wharton. I wanted to speak to Nora Patterson as a representative of this board,” Wharton said.
The association proposed to the commission that a traffic light be installed. The idea of installing a light at this intersection has been suggested before, but other Palmer Ranch groups were against it in the past. At the time, many community members were concerned that adding additional traffic lights to Central Sarasota Parkway would increase congestion.
“We don’t want to go from one problem to another,” Wharton said, but added he hasn’t witnessed a traffic backup at the traffic light at the trail crossing at Laurel Road. When he asked his board about getting a traffic light, he received its full support, he said.
A trail-user bridge is in the works for the intersection of Laurel Road and the Legacy Trail, so the association asked if the traffic light there could be moved to Central Sarasota Parkway.
Commissioner Nora Patterson presented the association’s request during the Aug. 26 commission meeting. Commissioners said the project at Laurel Road would not be completed for several years, so they would have to find a temporary solution.
Patterson suggested stop signs with red lights that flash when trail users activate them. These kinds of signs are used at crosswalks on Beach Road on Siesta Key. Patterson thought these signs presented more clearly what drivers were supposed to do and give trail users the right of way.
“It might be a stop-gap measure, and if it worked we wouldn’t need a traffic light,” Wharton said.
The issue was referred to staff, who will look into the next step.
Besides his own accident, Wharton said he’s witnessed a lot of a near-misses of bicyclists getting hit, and many of his neighbors have expressed concern that the intersection is dangerous.
“We’d like to get something put in before someone gets seriously hurt,” he said.