Safety Rules for Today’s Busier Roads

Exercising outdoors is great fun and good for your health, but it can also be downright dangerous. Hundreds of thousands of walkers, runners and cyclists are injured on our roads each year—and thousands are killed. Take a look at these figures from 2006 from the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis:

  • 170,048 pedestrians were injured and treated in hospital emergency departments
  • 4,784 pedestrians died
  • 74% of pedestrian fatalities occurred in urban areas
  • 79% at non-intersection locations
  • 90% in normal weather conditions
  • 69% at night
  • 466,712 cyclists were injured and treated in hospital emergency departments
  • 773 cyclists died
  • 73% of cycling fatalities occurred in urban areas
  • 68% at non-intersection locations
  • 27% between the hours of 5 and 9 pm.

Road Safety Tips

I was told by John Pucher, PhD, professor of urban planning and transportation in The Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey, “It’s like the Wild, Wild West out there—assume that motorists are not going to respect your rights as a pedestrian or cyclist, so you must walk, run and cycle as defensively as possible.” When you head out for a walk, run or ride, don’t count on others to keep you safe. Though motorists are required to follow crosswalk laws and yield right of way to pedestrians and cyclists, few drivers actually stop and few states enforce this rule. “You’re taking your life in your own hands,” he said. The key message for safe walking, running and cycling on roads is: See and be seen, and be smart about it. I asked Dr. Pucher to list the specific rules we should all follow to stay safe on the road. We learned many of these as kids, but we were faster then…and there was lots less traffic. No one can afford to be sloppy about adhering to these rules of the road:

Pedestrians:

  • Always walk on the sidewalk, and if there is no sidewalk, walk facing traffic.
  • Be able to see where you’re going. If you’re walking at night, carry a flashlight and cross in a well-lit area.
  • Be visible to drivers. Wear light or bright-colored clothing, including reflective vests, accessories and shoes. Stand clear of parked vehicles (trucks, buses, cars), hedges or other obstacles so drivers can see you.
  • Walk defensively. Don’t assume vehicles will stop. Make eye contact with drivers so you can be sure they see you…don’t just look at the vehicle.
  • Cross streets at marked crosswalks or intersections, if possible. This is where drivers know to expect pedestrians, which is not the case on other parts of the road. Also be alert for cars running red lights. And remember that cars, trucks, motorcycles and bikes stop at different speeds, so make sure they’ve stopped before you step into the street to cross.
  • Watch for turning vehicles—especially those with large loads, as they require more space. Every vehicle has blind spots and drivers may not see you.
  • Obey all traffic signals. In addition, look left, right, behind you and left again before crossing a street or stepping into traffic.
  • Don’t be distracted by wearing headphones or talking on a cell phone while crossing or when you are near traffic.
  • Be cautious near reversing cars, trucks and other vehicles in parking lots and near on-street parking locations.

Runners:

Pedestrian rules also apply to runners, but are even more important—people exerting themselves may be even less aware of their surroundings and have less time to think through options in moments of danger.

Cyclists:

  • Whenever possible, ride on a trail, paved shoulder, bike lane or bike route, or on a traffic-calmed street, where there are fewer cars and speeds are low.
  • If you must ride on a road, ride with traffic and follow the rules of the road. Going with the flow of traffic makes cyclists more visible and predictable to motorists, especially at intersections and driveways. Ride on the right side of the road and be on the lookout for doors opening from parked cars.
  • Ride straight on the road, and never wind in and around cars.
  • Use hand signals when turning and stopping.
  • Watch for turning traffic. Car/bike collisions often occur at intersections and driveways when motorists or bicyclists are turning.
  • Obey all traffic signs, signals and lane markings and yield to traffic when appropriate, including for pedestrians.
  • Be predictable. Try not to do things that motorists and other travelers may not be expecting.
  • Be visible. Make sure motorists can see you. If riding in the dark, use headlights, taillights and reflectors and wear reflective materials and brightly colored clothing. Bicycles should be equipped with a front light and a red reflector or a rear flashing light. The easier you are to see, the safer you are.
  • Be loud. Put a bell on your bike to make noise to alert pedestrians and others.
  • Always wear a bicycle helmet. It’s been shown that helmets effectively reduce crash fatalities and head injuries.
  • Don’t wear headphones—they reduce your ability to hear traffic coming from behind you, which is especially critical when cycling.

If you’d like more information on pedestrian and bicycle safety, check out the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center, funded by Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration. Not only do they have checklists and other educational resources, they also provide information helpful to those who want to work toward greater safety for the community—efforts we’d all benefit by. Dr. Pucher especially emphasizes that latter point, “very, very” strongly urging people to actively advocate for better facilities and policies for walking and cycling. “Walking and cycling can be made safe—they are roughly five times safer in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany,” he notes, adding the difference is due to safer facilities and more considerate driving and not safer behavior by pedestrians and cyclists—though of course, we can all start there.