By Christopher Cudworth
I recently got slammed by Friends on Facebook for posting a short video of a run along a freeway bustling with traffic. The morning was cold and wet with remnants of snow melt whooshing under the tires of passing cars and trucks.
The road shoulder was a full 8 feet wide where I ran, and in practiced fashion I traipsed along the far margins where the ice began and the asphalt shoulder disappeared under a sagging line of blackened ice and snow. And I ran with traffic.
That was what bothered my running friends. “Don’t make me come over there and slap you!” said one post.
Another posted a link to a video about running safety.
I get the legitimate criticism, and nothing rankles me more than seeing runners and riders doing stupid things on the roads. On the way to church last Sunday I witnessed a pair of runners (a guy and a gal) cruising along the road side by side, heading into traffic.
They should have lined up single file. Instead here was Joe Blow, a full six feet into the lane and not budging. I shook my head. That makes a bad name for runners.
Long road behind you
By my wild guess I’ve run about 40,000 miles in my career. That’s about 5333 hours on the roadsides. Not a ton by some measures, but it is just about twice around the world.
Now I’ve cycled that much as well, averaging 3000-4000 miles per year for 10 years. I’m not saying that makes me wiser or impervious to accidents. But it does speak to some experience in terms of judgement about what is safe or not when running and riding on the roads.
It comes down to this. There are only suggestions. There are no hard, fast rules. But I do live by some principles that are the accumulation of common sense and roadside experience.
First : A Reality check
Consider these not-so-funny facts about the differences between running and riding. Runners should typically proceed against traffic. That’s a given. You can see what is coming your way. Yet cyclists should not dream of riding against traffic. For one thing, it’s against the law.
The reality check here is that we’re given opposite advice on what to do while running and riding. So what’s the truth about the odds in safety while running and riding? It’s yin and yang.
Runners are slower than cyclists. Yet the odds of being struck from behind when running with traffic are really no greater for runners than they are for cyclists riding in the same direction. We’re taught to think we have better vision and anticipation by running against traffic, and that the odds of being struck from behind as a runner are greater than those of a cyclist, but those “facts” are contradicted by reality. The odds are no greater in either case. That’s one of the weird tarsnakes of running and riding. They are opposites in many ways in terms of safety recommendations.
So you must use your judgement rather than proceed on false pretense of safety. Instead, here are my guidelines (like the Pirate’s Code) for safety.
The Three A’s of Safety are broken into categories for running and riding; Awareness, Attentiveness and Adaptation. They have served me well in 40+ years of running and riding.
Awareness: Be Flexible On the Run
Cycling requires particular attentiveness to traffic conditions. The rules for road sharing may require motorists to give you three feet of space when passing but that rule is consistently broken and frankly, impossible to enforce. So you can’t assume the kindness and consideration of others when cycling.
Even bike lanes are not completely safe. Look at this video of a cyclist ticketed for riding outside the bike lanes in New York. Turns out the bike lanes were more dangerous than the regular street.
What you can do is communicate consistently if you’re in a group, or constantly check for safety behind you when riding alone. On rural roads I do a “back check” every time I hear approaching cars if there is no road shoulder. I also ride on the one-foot shoulder outside the white line. I do this consistently and it makes my riding companions wonder about me at times. But it’s something that has served me well and my bike-handling skills have proven sufficient to maintain that practice. I just don’t like to assume that people are going to give me the three feet required.
Attentiveness: Choose Your Routes Wisely
The morning I was running on the busy road shoulder in wet conditions was one of hundreds of times I have covered that stretch in all sorts of conditions. The road shoulder is not just sufficient, it is expansive, with more than 12 total feet from white line to another 2 feet of soft dirt and gravel. Lots of cigarette butts too. Nothing’s perfect.
When riding it is important to know traffic volumes and patterns. The simple practice of avoiding busy roads at peak traffic times is common sense. The same roads an hour later can be fine for riding.
Attentiveness: Adjust for Groups, and Be a Leader
The habits you develop for solo running and riding may not be practical or advisable when running or riding with a group.
Groups tend to be amoeba-like as they proceed down the road, expanding and contracting as people adjust to pace and the draft. That’s why it is important to set the tone by communicating clearly all anticipated traffic situations. Even if you turn out to be wrong about an approaching vehicle because it turns behind you, your companions are more alert as a result. Of course you should not “Cry Wolf” all the time, but that would be a rare thing anyway.
Adaptation: Signal and Wave
It is a simple rule. Be ready to adapt at all times. I am the first to leap off the road and run on the crappy shoulder when conditions call for it. And as a cyclist, I will pull over and simply stand still if traffic suddenly gets congested. This is true even at rural intersections.
When running against traffic it is more important to separate hazards. If you look ahead and see the road shoulder narrowing or worse, disappearing altogether, you must plan to avoid being on the same section of the road with approaching traffic.
Adaptation: Managing Your Pace
The same goes for pace. There are places where it is not wise to run fast, but to run slow and keep your eyes open or checking over your shoulder is the top priority.
As a runner I’ve long developed the habit of waving cars through even at quiet suburban intersections. I’d rather err on the side of politeness than rush through an intersection and have a confrontation. As a result, I often get waved through anyway. Drivers just want to be acknowledged. If you keep your head down and bull past them without a nod they naturally get pissed off. Or worse yet, they may not see you.
Adaptation: Slowing and Stopping as a Cyclist
As a cyclist you owe it to yourself to slow for Stop signs. Yes, the law says come to a full stop. But if you know your streets and there are no cars, it is common practice to slow, look all directions and roll through. Don’t lie about it. We all do it.
But if there are cars, by law you must stop. I make a practice of slowing, standing up in the pedals and looking right at the drivers. That is often enough to start the communications and many times they are happy to let a cyclist roll through ahead of them.
Taking the opposite approach of assuming drivers will stop for you is downright obnoxious. Don’t do it.
Adaptation: Pay attention to Time of Day
The early morning hours are the best time to run and ride because traffic tends to be less heavy. Yet you must realize that many drivers are just pulling themselves together as they travel to work, and aren’t yet alert to road conditions, traffic, or those of us who run and ride.
That’s another tarsnake of running and riding reality. Your favorite time to ride or run may in fact be the worst time of all to be on the roads. People just aren’t awake yet behind the wheel. Lighting conditions can change quickly too. Early morning sunrise can blind drivers, particularly if conditions are cool or freezing and frost gets struck by sunlight on the windshield.
You may feel as if you are highly visible in your day-glo yellow jacket, but when the sun turns you into a dark blob you may mix into the landscape and never be seen. Pay attention to time of day when you’re out running and riding, and always assume that drivers cannot see you.
And remember: Shit Happens
The only accident I’ve had while riding turned out to be the result of bike wobble. That’s where the harmonics of your wheels and frame get into a weird timing and the whole bike starts to shake. It happens most frequently on downhills and can be set off by rough road or mere speed. I crashed and broke a collarbone but was fortunate and smart enough to get my bike off the road to avoid a tumbling roll on asphalt coming out of a 40mph downhill.
I also had a close call on a suburban bike trail that crosses a series of roads. One drop down to a street came up quickly and I was going too fast for that section and a car burst past at the very moment I came to a screeching halt, full brakes and feet down. That was lucky in some respects.
I almost got hit by a flying Volkswagen once while running. Standing on a busy street corner, I was wiping my eyes with a shirt when two cars crashed into each other at the intersection. My instincts rapidly took over and I dove, shoving an older man down some concrete steps as the car came to rest right where we’d been standing.
He got up and got into a car right away. His ride had arrived. I stood there stunned for a moment, then ran across a bridge wondering what the hell had just happened. Halfway across the bridge a Death Shiver came over me and I stopped in my tracks in shock and disbelief at what just happened.
So there’s something in me that realizes that anything can happen at any moment. You do your best to use your common sense, and really, don’t live by rules that are too hard and fast. It’s all about Attentiveness, Awareness and Adaptation. Those are the three A’s of safety.