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The Safety of Columbia's Pathways HOWARD COUNTY


As we have said before on this page, one of Columbia's greatest and most unique assets is its open space and pathways. Fifty-seven miles of pathways, 2,700 acres of open space and three man-made lakes to be exact. In terms of recreation -- or just sheer access to nature's bounties amid suburbia -- the Columbia network is unmatched.

Unfortunately, there are times when the sanctity of this system is marred, as it was this week at Lake Elkhorn in Owen Brown. A 28-year-old woman was assaulted as she walked the footpath around the lake at about 11 a.m. Monday. Her assailant has not been found.

This horrible crime will undoubtedly raise red flags throughout the community. When some residents have fought against creation of new pathways near their home, crime is often the first fear mentioned -- particularly rapes, muggings and burglaries. And certainly, all of these things have occurred, because the pathways, by their nature, are secluded and provide cover to criminals.

But this should not be cause for undue alarm. Pathways are not the only place where crimes occur, and no one should become so alarmist that they shun the paths out of fear. Unfortunately, no one knows exactly how many crimes have occurred along Columbia paths, because neither the police nor the Columbia Association that manages the system collects such data.

It is known that two years ago a woman was raped at Centennial Park, just outside Columbia. Prior to that, in 1988, a string of sexual assaults occurred on Columbia paths.

But county police spokesman Gary Gardner said the paths are not a breeding ground for crime. "We just don't hear of purse snatchings and assaults along the paths," he said. One reason may be that police began patrolling the paths on motor bikes several years ago.

That may or may not be reassuring to most residents. However, it should be weighed against the benefits that the path system affords. Few things are more uplifting than a walk in the woods or alongside a stream. And what is more Columbia-like than taking the kids on a stroll to the nearest tot lots? There are 131 along Columbia's paths.

Should residents still use caution? By all means, and not just along the paths. Enjoy a walk through nature. But enjoy it with a friend.

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