Running Safety Starts on the Road

drtwt
A road runner’s enemy #1.

Last winter in Connecticut, Michael Walsh went for a run from his home. He was tragically hit and killed by a snow plow while running in the early morning darkness, on the wrong side of the street, under low-visibility weather conditions, wearing headphones, a white t-shirt and black pants, but without a light or any reflective gear on. Michael sadly made a lot of road safety mistakes that put him in danger.

Nine years earlier, at high-noon on a clear, warm Tuesday afternoon, wearing a florescent yellow shirt and running into traffic without music, I was hit by a car. The driver smashed into me going 35 miles per hour. I landed 50 feet away. The rescue squad came to scrape me off the pavement. Against all odds, I got up and limped away.

While runners on social media debate whether to carry mace or what headlamp is the best for running at night so you can see the sidewalk cracks, there’s another safety issue that most runners don’t consider. The majority of us, at some point, will run on roads. Whether we run on them in the dark or in broad daylight, running on the road is perhaps the most dangerous situation we put ourselves into while running.

You’d think that the story of Michael Walsh’s death would be a wake-up call reminding all of us to make good decisions when we hit the road, but just one day after his death made Runners World headlines, many of us put on our gray jackets, snapped our earbuds in, and headed out to meet our friends in the darkness of early morning.

I was hit by a car in my own city, on my own turf, on a stretch of road I have circumnavigated ten thousand times as a driver, a passenger, and as a runner. A serious running injury or the death of someone close to you changes your life forever. It sucks to be injured by other people’s negligence, but there are simple things you can do to protect yourself.

Learn from Michael Walsh’s mistakes and my experience and follow these golden rules of safely sharing the road.

Don’t go out disguised as asphalt.

Salty recently made fun of me when I showed up again to a run wearing a neon yellow long-sleeve shirt. She asked, “Is that the only shirt you own?” “No,” I replied, “I actually own two of these.”

Sunday's salty run.
The first time I ran with Salty. I think she eventually asked me if this was the only bra I own too. But who cares? Drivers can see it!

I am shocked at the number of runners who go out and play in traffic wearing clothing in a color or pattern that can best be described as “asphalt” or “grass.” I know grey matches everything, but your job when you share the road isn’t to look cute, it is to make sure that everyone else on the road sees you. In fact, your job is to be the most visible thing on the road. 

Even your colorful clothing that isn’t black or grey probably isn’t as visible as you think. The difference in visibility between neon and everything else is remarkable, even in broad daylight. You might find it frustratingly difficult to obtain nice fluorescent clothing. The ball is in your court to put the effort in. I know. I know. The selection is poor and fluorescent isn’t a cute color, but shop around and make high visibility, the highest visibility, a top priority in choosing clothes you’ll wear out on the roads.

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Which brings up a good point. Excuse me while I use this opportunity to speak to the running apparel manufacturers: What on earth are you doing? Trying to get us killed!?

When I go to the store and shop for running clothes, I wonder why is it so hard to find nice high visibility clothing. This gorgeous jacket to the left is called the “NB Heat en Route Jacket,” and New Balance tells us it’s “a must-have for cold weather runs.” If the goal is for me to wear your silly expensive coat out in a blizzard, it shouldn’t come in the color “white out” or any other color but neon yellow, pink, or orange.

Thanks. Now back to you. If you’re looking for visible clothes, Brooks does a good job with its Nightlife Collection, though I think it should be named the Anytime-on-the-road-life Collection. If you’re looking for visible stuff, start there.

Run on the correct side of the street.

When running on a road, run against traffic, meaning run so you see the cars coming at you. We could come up with all sorts of reasons why we run facing traffic: so we can spot wayward cars and jump out of the way, because our faces are more visible than our hair, or because it gives us a better view when we pass through intersections.

The real reason we run facing traffic, besides that it’s the law, is that it reinforces consistency so drivers know where to look for us pedestrians. Even if you follow this rule regularly, do it intentionally; you have to pay attention and ask yourself every step if you are the most visible you can be.

There are exceptions to the running against traffic rule, like on a blind turn or a hill. In those instances change sides of the street and run with traffic to make yourself visible within the stopping distance of the vehicles on the road.

Unplug your distractions to better avoid drivers’ distractions

Keep your earbuds at home. When you are blasting your music, you can’t hear the bears, dogs, rapists, cars, trains, or Big Foot sneaking up on you. Or it might start to rain and you’ll electrocute your inner ear. Those might be silly made up reasons, but seriously folks, it is just a distraction that you don’t really need.

You cannot assume drivers see you.
Be a defensive runner: assume this is happening in most cars.

When you run on the road, it’s you against cars. Even if you have every right to be there, which you do, you need to pay attention to oncoming traffic to make sure on-coming cars don’t nail you. Many cars are driven by people with bad eye sight, oblivious people in la-la-land, parents yelling at their kids in the back, teenage texters, or people who don’t notice you for whatever reason. You need to see them coming and you need to be able to react or else you will lose, and the next thing you’ll  remember is the paramedics scraping you off the concrete … if you ever remember anything again.

Another way to decrease your distractions on the road might also include making sure to run your harder workouts on a track or other places with minimal or no vehicles. Trying to run your workout on the road, and then fixing your eyes to your Garmin or even just remaining hyper-focused on your intense effort, takes away from your ability to focus on the what’s going on around you. Not a big deal on a track, but potentially deadly in traffic.

Ultimately, like my situation showed, when you are on the road you are putting yourself in danger, despite all the safety rules you follow. In 2013, 4,735 pedestrians were killed by cars. I don’t know how many of those 4,735 people were hit while running, but I do know by taking a few simple precautions you are far less likely to become one of them.

What safety precautions do you make on the road? Do you have a different set of rules?

I'm a subelite marathon runner, but I didn't come from a collegiate running background. Instead I'm trying to break into competitive running in my thirties. I write about chasing the dream of running with the elite girls and tell stories of adventures along the way. Watch me chase the next big thing.

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5 comments

  1. Great post. I was listening to another runner not to long ago say she only wears black to run at night so she blends in with the darkness and to keep herself “invisible from all the weirdos” Umm, ok.
    You’re writing is always great.

  2. Very good synopsis. @261Fearless we also gathered “what to wear while running” clothing and lighting. SO important. I wear a neon orange vest in the winter for warmth and safety. In summer, my neon-pink short-sleeved shirt also helps. I don’t listen to music, run against traffic (although recently on bike trail a biker yelled at me for doing this), try to see drivers’ eyes at cross-walks. Defensive running is the rule.

  3. You are so right about the clothing! I know so many people who don’t give it a second thought and hop out on the road in grey or black or navy or white in the snow! I don’t get those clothes and why they’re marketing for outdoor running when it seriously is a safety hazard to wear them on the road. It’s crazy. And I am in complete agreement about workouts and music. I try to do my workouts in the park, preferably on the bike path and out of traffic. It’s so stressful to try to run hard AND pay attention to cars and dodge them and potholes at the same time anyway. Great informative post!

  4. I’m guilty of using earbuds while I run. I haven’t been road running for awhile though, but I vow to leave the earbuds at home next time! I try to keep it on paved trail, where the only traffic is bikers and other runners. Almost all of my gear is neon, so I’ve got that going on at least! I have almost been hit by a distracted driver in many intersections where I had the right-of-way. It’s alarming. My latest wake up call happened last month when someone threw a full can of beer at me while I was running on a sidewalk at night. I was wearing visible gear, and the person drove by, threw the can as it exploded, and yelled an insult. I’ve been pretty turned off to running near roads since then. Now I make sure to go with a buddy in a low-traffic area.