For three weeks of every year, I fear for my life.
Well, it's more accurate to say that I become highly attuned in regard to my safety while running. See, I spend some time each year in a small coastal town in south British Columbia, and the roads are hilly, windy and completely lacking in a pedestrian-friendly shoulder.
I remember elementary school. Walk facing traffic. Ride your bike with traffic.
And yet, I often see people running that same coastal road with the traffic. Probably a quarter of the runners I see are on the wrong side.
And yes, it is the wrong side. In most, but not all cases, the proper side is the left side (one-way roadways not always withstanding). Just make sure you're facing traffic. You'll be doing it correctly. You'll be doing it safely.
This is all presupposing the lack of a suitable walking path or sidewalk.
"If you don't run on the sidewalk, you can be ticketed," said James Solomon, director of program development for the National Safety Council's defensive-driving courses. "You're supposed to use running paths and sidewalks whenever possible."
But what about those situations where there is no path or sidewalk?
"The runner needs to be able to see possible danger coming," Solomon said. "You want to run facing traffic." Solomon, who is a runner, added, "I always run facing traffic. I never give anyone a free shot at me."
Me too. On this narrow B.C. road I am hyper-vigilant, always ready to dive into the ditch if the person driving toward me doesn't feel like sharing. It just seems like a no-brainer to me. Cars are big and made of metal; humans are small and soft and squishy. The pedestrian always loses. Every time I see people running with traffic, I cringe.
"Runners should run against traffic, so they can see the traffic coming toward then," says Jason Karp, an author of several books on running including "Running a Marathon for Dummies." Everyone I talked to said against traffic is the way to go.
"Run against traffic," Jean Knaack, executive director for the Road Runners Club of America, told me. "More than anything the reason is safety."
And an email from Derrell Lyles at the U.S. Department of Transportation makes it official: "Walk on sidewalks, if available; if no sidewalk, walk facing traffic." This is the recommendation of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
So, what are the consequences for rule breakers?
"You will not find federal laws that tell you what side of the road to run on," Solomon said. "They will either be state, county or local jurisdiction. … Everything I've seen has said 'facing traffic.' I've never seen anything contradict that."
Both Solomon and Knaack spoke of people being ticketed for walking or running on the road when there was an available sidewalk, but it seems as though the enforcement for running facing traffic is practically nonexistent. Solomon refers to running facing traffic as "common-sense-based legislation." This is one of those things where enforcement via a police officer writing up tickets isn't the reason to obey the law. Fear of being turned into a road pizza is.
"It's amazing how many people don't run facing traffic," Knaack told me. "It's not a safe choice. Don't just check your brain at the door when you leave home."
However, one thing to consider leaving at home is your music player. When I run on roadways, I forgo the iPod, because although I can see the cars coming toward me, I want to hear the cars coming from behind for a very important reason: That car coming from behind can affect the path of the car coming toward me.
"If a motorist sees another vehicle coming at them they're going to focus on that vehicle and avoiding hitting it, and not likely paying attention to you," Solomon said. He recommends a reflective vest for people running on roadways to increase their visibility.
It's interesting that it's a lawyer who doesn't advise blind allegiance to the law.
"I preach a common-sense approach to personal safety," William Adams, a general practice lawyer and runner in Morgantown, W.Va., told me. "All else being equal, face traffic. But sometimes it's not equal. Sometimes there is poor visibility on the traffic-facing side. Sometimes there is a much bigger shoulder on the side with traffic."
Or sometimes, there's a bear.
Solomon says he's never encountered a situation where he thought running with traffic was the safe choice, but I have, once. Since there weren't any cars around, I changed over to the other side of the road and gave Mr. Black Bear as wide a berth as possible.
Keep in mind
If there is a sidewalk or running path, the law states that you must run on it, regardless if it goes with or against traffic.
There is no federal law stating which side of the road to run on, but local, county and state legislation points toward running against traffic to see approaching vehicles.
Consider wearing reflective material to be more visible to motorists.
Be alert. You must be prepared to leap out of the way of an oncoming vehicle.
Fell is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of sixpackabs.com.