7 Ways to Run Safely on the Road

A woman runs in morning fog on deserted road with telephone or electrical poles, northern California coast. (silhouette)
Brian Stevenson / Getty Images

When you run outside, you should run against traffic. When you do so, you can see cars coming at you on the same side of the road. This is much safer than having cars at your back. If you're in the dark or low light conditions, you'll be able to see oncoming headlights.

In some areas, it's not even a matter of choice—the law requires that runners and walkers face oncoming traffic. This is the opposite of the rules for bicycle riders, who ride with the flow of traffic.

While there is no U.S. federal law about running against traffic, many states, counties, and cities have these laws that require pedestrians (including runners) to travel against traffic.

Research shows that this keeps pedestrians safer: One study of more than 250 pedestrian accidents in Finland found a 77% decrease in accidents involving fatalities and injuries when the pedestrians were traveling facing traffic.

Often, laws state that pedestrians should stay on the sidewalk if there is one available. However, some runners prefer asphalt roads because they are softer than concrete sidewalks and don't require stepping on and off curbs, avoiding pedestrians, and so on. If you do run on the road, always obey proper running etiquette, and follow all these rules for road safety.

Be Alert at Blind Curves and Hills

Occasionally, you may find yourself on a road with lots of hills or turns where it might actually be difficult to see oncoming cars if you're running against traffic. If you are about to go around a blind curve and there is no separation from the road, it can be safer to cross to the other side of the road where you can see traffic as it goes around the curve.

The same may be true on a blind hill where you can't see a car that is about to come over the crest. Switch to the other side and look behind you frequently for cars approaching from behind. Always switch back to the correct side of the road after passing these hazardous areas.

Run Single File

Never run two abreast on roads. Even if there is a bike lane, it is best to run a single file so neither of you strays into the traffic lane. If you have to switch to the opposite side of the road for a blind curve or another hazard, be sure to warn your running partner of cars approaching from behind.

Seek Separate Paths

Running on paths or sidewalks is always safer than sharing the road with cars. It is worthwhile to switch to such paths if they are available on either side of the road. If you have to run on roads, be sure to avoid busy roads and those with no shoulders. If you're running at night or early morning, look for roads with street lights.

Run Defensively

Drivers have a lot of distractions and they may not see you until the last minute (or until it's too late). You can take control of your own safety. If a car is coming toward you, make sure you get out of the way. You should never assume that a driver can see you.

Besides distractions, they may not expect runners to be on the road or in a crosswalk and won't be looking for you. Be sure you make eye contact with drivers or wait for a signal from the driver at street crossings before you cross. Stay alert in neighborhoods and commercial zones for cars that are backing out or turning into driveways and side streets.

Avoid Wearing Headphones

Headphones can increase your risks when running on roads. Cutting off your sense of hearing leaves you at a disadvantage. You can't hear oncoming cars, cyclists yelling to move, dogs, or any other potential threat. If you absolutely have to run with music or some other distraction, keep the volume very low or run with one earbud out so you can still hear what's happening around you.

Be Visible

Especially in the rain or snow, and at dawn, dusk, or when it is dark out, wear reflective clothing to help drivers see you. It's also smart to clip a flashing light to your clothing for extra visibility.

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By Christine Luff, ACE-CPT
Christine Many Luff is a personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist, and Road Runners Club of America Certified Coach.