One week ago, Meg Menzies, a 34 year old Ashland Virginia mother of three young children, was running with her husband, training for the Boston Marathon. Shortly after 8AM, while running on the shoulder of the street towards traffic, an SUV ran off the side of the road while in a curve, and fatally struck her.
Her story was heard around the world, in part due to social media. Runners everywhere ran #megsmiles in her memory. This tragic story touches everyone, and runners easily empathize. If you are a runner, you have run along the narrow shoulders of local roads. You’ve had close calls with vehicles, and distracted or careless drivers. Your own distractions while running may have led you to be less than careful. Stories of fatal or serious runner-vehicle collisions are published in local newspapers and national running magazines, but how often do they really occur?
The internet has a lot of incorrect statistics. A Connecticut law firm website states “The most recent national statistics show that over 4,000 walkers or joggers were fatally struck by a car in 2010. “ (This is incorrect, as the CDC reports ~4,000 pedestrians die from crash-related injuries each year in the United States). One article concluded that “less than 0.5% of all pedestrian deaths involved a jogger and only 6% of jogging deaths were traumatic” (1) Even this statistic seems faslely elevated at 200 runners per year. The bottom line is, there is no national database on runner-vehicle collisions.
While an encounter with a vehicle will cause more damage than an encounter with a dog, how frightened should we be?
First, think about how damaging being hit by a vehicle can be. Many runners run on the shoulder of a road, where the speed limit is 25 to 45 mph. Being struck by a vehicle traveling at 25 mph is equivalent to falling off a 2 story building. A 45 mph impact is equivalent to falling off a 6 story building. You can imagine the bodily damage you would sustain if you jumped off the roof of a 6 story building, but we don’t imagine the same potential trauma as we run with vehicles.
I reviewed the medical and scientific literature and found a 1981 Public Health Reports article entitled When Motor Vehicles Hit Joggers: an Analysis of 60 Cases. The author, a senior behavioral scientist at the Washington DC Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, looked at how widespread the problem is, what factors increase the likelihood of a collision and how could such incidents be avoided. He searched for newspaper accounts of joggers struck by vehicles for a one year period (August 1978 to August 1979), and identified 60 collisions in which 65 joggers were struck. He found that the dangers of jogger-motor vehicle collisions are exaggerated by the news media. “Only a tiny fraction of all joggers are killed or injured; they represent an extremely small proportion of the more than 8,000 pedestrians killed and tens of thousands injured every year.” Of the 65 joggers involved in motor vehicle collisions, about half were killed. Young (15 to 24 year old) males were the most likely to be involved, and almost half took place between the hours of 3PM and 9PM. Thirty percent of drivers and 30 percent of joggers appeared to be primarily responsible for the incident. In over half of the cases, the joggers were running with traffic.
- jogging after dark
- jogging with other people,
- jogging on roadways in the same direction as vehicles.
He recommended joggers:
- wear reflective clothing (none in his study wore reflective clothing and several wore dark clothing)
- run against traffic (unless the jogger is approaching a blind curve that has no shoulders, and then it would be prudent to run on the other side of the road).
- be alert to vehicles crossing over into the wrong lane
- groups of joggers should run single file
- joggers should recognize they are susceptible to being struck from behind AND by oncoming vehicles.
His recommendations “involve common sense adjustment by drivers and joggers to the fact that they are sharing the roadways.”
In the 35 years since his recommendations were published, running has become more popular. According to Running USA’s Annual Marathon Report there were 25,000 marathon finishers in 1976. By 1980, that number grew to 143,000. By 2011, over half a million people finished a marathon.
With more than three times as many marathon runners today than when the article was written, I wondered how the statistics have changed. While not a statistically significant study, I did a Bing search for fatal runner-vehicle collisions occurring in the US in 2013. While not an exhaustive search, I identified 15 news reports of fatal or significant injuries to runners. Here is a synopsis of the results:
- There were only 4 deaths out of 21 runners struck by a vehicle
- Women were two times more likely to be involved than men (even though the number of male and female runners is essentially equal: 56% Female 44% Male)
- 66% of the accidents occurred to people running alone
- 73% of the accidents occurred while the runner was running on the shoulder of the road
- Of the 13 cases which reported the exact location, only twice were runners on a sidewalk.
- More than a third of runners were running with traffic! (This number is probably higher, as only 7 of the 15 cases reported this information.)
- 53% of the accidents occurred at intersections.
(According to the Federal Highway Administration “Intersections are planned points of conflict in any roadway system. Motorized and non-motorized users are crossing paths as they travel through or turn from one route to another. In the United States, over the last several years, an average of 21% of the (roadway) fatalities and roughly 50% of the serious injuries have been attributed to intersections.”)
- 60% of the accidents occurred between 6AM and 9AM, and 20% occurred between 6PM and 9PM.
Some runners remained unidentified for hours to days because they were not carrying identification or a phone.
From the 2013 news reports I found, my recommendations are similar to the 1981 study conclusions, plus:
- Always run with identification and/or your phone.
- Wear bright, fluorescent clothing.
- If you listen to music, keep the volume low enough to hear surrounding sounds. It would be ideal to run without music.
- Intersections are the most dangerous place. Look in all directions before crossing. Wait until you have a green light or proper crossing signal.
- Run on the sidewalk whenever possible. While this doesn’t guarantee your safety (1 person was killed while running on a dedicated bike path), it separates you from dangerous drivers.
- Avoid running on the roads during “rush hours”. People travel to and from work from 6 to 9 (morning and night), and may be hurried and distracted.
- If you must run on the shoulder of a road, run against traffic. (This recommendation hasn’t changed in the 35 years, but I still see runners on the wrong side of the road).
- Be aware of all surrounding traffic. You are just as likely to be struck by a car coming towards you as one coming from behind. Always assume the driver does not see you.
I realize there are a lot of suggestions to keep you safe while running, and you’re not likely to remember them all each time you lace up your shoes. In order to keep yourself safe, I suggest you simply remember M.E.G. –
M – Monitor all traffic. Vehicles coming towards you AND vehicles approaching from behind can be dangerous.
E – Engage intersections carefully. The majority of collisions occur here.
G– Go against the flow. Run towards traffic. You are more likely to react to a vehicle coming towards you, and are less likely to be struck from behind.
Remember, it’s better to have to stop running to check your surroundings or allow a vehicle to safely pass, so you can return home to your family at the end of your run. The seconds you lose waiting for a vehicle to pass may add years to your life. Live to run another day, for Meg’s sake.
1) Thompson, PD, et al. Incidence of Death during Jogging in Rhode
Island from 1975 through 1980. JAMA. 1982; 247 (18): 2535-2538.
2) Traumatic injuries to runners. AMAA Journal. March 22, 2006
3) Vehicle injuries to joggers. Case report and review. Shephard RJ. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 1992 Sep;32(3):321-31.
4) Pedestrian Injuries and Fatalities. Guide No. 51 (2007). Justin A. Heinonen and John E. Eck. The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing.
6) Runner’s World has a good article on road safety entitled Collision Course.