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Vehicles vs. Runners: Dealing With the Dangers of Road Running

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On the morning of August 30, 2010 Paige Johnson and a friend were running near her home of Aiken, South Carolina. The route was a regular one for many local runners but required running on the shoulder of the roadway. An oncoming pickup truck traveling 45 miles per hour slammed into Johnson (her running partner was grazed but uninjured). Johnson spent the next three weeks in an intensive care unit. A portion of her skull had to be removed due to swelling in her brain.

Johnson's story ends on a reasonably upbeat note. The right side of her face has been rebuilt through reconstructive surgery while her speech and physical therapy have also proven successful. She's currently planning to run in a 5K race in March to raise funds for brain injury research.

Other runners have not been as fortunate. Last January, Donna Chen, a 53-year-old mother of three, was jogging on the shoulder of a Florida road in the early afternoon when she was hit by a drunk driver. She died at the scene. The sequence of events that lead to the fatal crash are as appalling as their conclusion was tragic.

Everyone who runs or cycles regularly eventually has to contend with the very real danger presented by vehicles. Even if you are lucky enough to live in a locale with runner-friendly road infrastructure, the fact is most drivers simply tend to be oblivious of pedestrians. With the ongoing growth in popularity of endurance events the number of runners and cyclists competing for pavement space is increasing as well.

Add to that the growing concern of distracted drivers who are talking or texting while they operate their vehicles and the fact runners tend to be on the road at dawn and dusk - the worst possible times for visibility to drivers - its somewhat amazing the statistics for accidents involving runners aren't worse than they are.

I currently live and run in the Phoenix, Arizona metro area. The Valley of the Sun is considered one of the ten worst urban areas in the country in terms of pedestrian fatalities. While there has been substantial improvements to the road infrastructure and accommodations for runners in the last several years, the sheer number of vehicles makes every outing a dangerous one.

Last year local runner Sally Meyerhoff, who has became the first US woman to win the PF Chang's Rock 'n' Roll Marathon just a few months prior, was struck and killed by a pickup truck when cycling in a rural area south of Phoenix. A police report determined the accident was Meyerhoff's fault -- an assessment challenged by her family who insist she was a cautious cyclist.

The incident underscores the problem runners and cyclists face in urban areas that have a large number of vehicles and limited infrastructure for everyone else.The result is an increasing number of fatal incidents involving vehicles and pedestrians. Transportation for America, a public policy organization promoting improved infrastructure investment, found that between 2000 and 2009 more than 5,300 pedestrians were killed every year in vehicle-related accidents.

Government statistics don't break down fatality figures between regular pedestrians and runners but a 2010 Runners World survey of news reports found "nearly 20 runners had been killed by cars or trucks during the first 10 months of 2009, and more than 40 runners have been killed since 2004." (Also, that Runner's World story is exhaustive, informative and extremely well written. I highly urge anyone who is concerned about their safety to give it a read.)

In the Phoenix area, it's not uncommon to see runners jogging in the local bike lanes but it is illegal to do so. As well as dangerous. In 2009 a runner using one of the bike lanes for an evening workout was struck and killed by a car. And if you live in a more rural area where pedestrian accommodations are limited - like in the case of Paige Johnson - the risks of vehicles are even more pronounced. There is just nowhere for the pedestrian to go when traffic passes by.

Races aren't a respite from the danger. Last March a Phoenix high school student died during the Ragnar Relay Del Sol race when he was hit by a vehicle when he crossed the road to support a teammate running the race. I personally stopped a woman from running into traffic at a marathon last year. She was celebrating a friend's finishing the race and wanted to run across the road to get her camera from her car. In the excitement she simply didn't look for the oncoming traffic.

Bottom line, a pedestrian or cyclist will always lose in a collusion with a vehicle no matter which party is to blame. That simple fact and the severity of an injury a pedestrian is likely to suffer even in relatively low-speed collisions underscore the steps one takes to prevent such incidents. They aren't looking out for us so it is imperative we look out for ourselves.

Here are a list of tips for runner safety provided by the Road Runners Club of America. While several of these are intended to keep runners safe from assaults, even some of those apply for keeping you safe from vehicles.

  • DON’T WEAR HEADPHONES. Use your ears to be aware of your surroundings. Your ears may help you avoid dangers your eyes may miss during evening or early morning runs.
  • Run against traffic so you can observe approaching automobiles. By facing on-coming traffic, you may be able to react quicker than if it is behind you.
  • Look both ways before crossing. Be sure the driver of a car acknowledges your right-of-way before crossing in front of a vehicle. Obey traffic signals.
  • Carry identification or write your name, phone number, and blood type on the inside sole of your running shoe. Include any medical information.
  • Always stay alert and aware of what’s going on around you. The more aware you are, the less vulnerable you are.
  • Carry a cell phone or change for a phone call. Know the locations of public phones along your regular route.
  • Trust your intuition about a person or an area. React on your intuition and avoid a person or situation if you’re unsure. If something tells you a situation is not "right", it isn’t.
  • Alter or vary your running route pattern; run in familiar areas if possible. In unfamiliar areas, such as while traveling, contact a local RRCA club or running store. Know where open businesses or stores are located in case of emergency.
  • Run with a partner. Run with a dog.
  • Write down or leave word of the direction of your run. Tell friends and family of your favorite running routes.
  • Avoid unpopulated areas, deserted streets, and overgrown trails. Avoid unlit areas, especially at night. Run clear of parked cars or bushes.
  • Ignore verbal harassment and do not verbally harass others. Use discretion in acknowledging strangers. Look directly at others and be observant, but keep your distance and keep moving.
  • Wear reflective material if you must run before dawn or after dark. Avoid running on the street when it is dark.
  • Practice memorizing license tags or identifying characteristics of strangers.
  • Carry a noisemaker. Get training in self-defense.
  • When using multi-use trails, follow the rules of the road. If you alter your direction, look over your should before crossing the trail to avoid a potential collision with an oncoming cyclist or passing runner.
  • CALL POLICE IMMEDIATELY if something happens to you or someone else, or you notice anyone out of the ordinary. It is important to report incidents immediately.