Runners keep eye on roads

Distracted drivers could be growing problem for runners, bikers

Jim Christian has some advice for the runners he coaches as they jog along city streets, particularly at busy intersections: Make sure the driver sees you. “Always make eye contact with them, because you never know what they are going to do,” he said.

That could become increasingly difficult, and those streets could be a growing hazard for people trying to get fit, a new study says.

Writing in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention journal Preventing Chronic Disease, Dr. Matthew Lee Smith of the University of Georgia sees two conflicting trends. With the growing rate of obesity, there is a greater need for people to be physically active in their communities through walking, biking and running. At the same time, the number of drivers distracted by handheld devices such as cellphones is growing, he said.

“So the question becomes, ‘Are we send­ing people out into unsafe environments?’ ” said Smith, an assistant professor in the De­partment of Health Promotion and Be­havior in the College of Public Health at UGA.

The answer is yes. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated there were 3,092 deaths in distraction-related accidents in 2010. Those distractions are bound to increase. The Highway Loss Data Institute Bulletin reported that the number of text messages sent increased from 14 million in 2000 to more than 150 billion in 2010, and could increase 50 times that by 2020. A survey from AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that more than one in three people admit to often or regularly talking on the phone while driving, and nearly one in four texts or e-mails while behind the wheel.

Accidents from distracted driving recently prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to call for a complete ban on cellphone use while driving unless it is an emergency, which might be tough to implement.

What might make the difference is awareness on both sides – drivers aware that more walkers, runners and bicyclists might be out in the streets, and more awareness by non-motorists that drivers might not see them, Smith said.

“(Drivers) need to be aware there is going to be a lot more potential for this interaction,” he said. “It’s just as much a responsibility (for the non-motorist).”

What would help is a multidisciplinary approach to designing healthier communities with these issues in mind, he said. Christian, a running and triathlon coach who leads Team in Training and other groups, said he tries to
take no chances, particularly at intersections.
“I never trust people at all,” he said. “I will wait and definitely make eye contact.”

Waiting outside Nacho Mama’s restaurant on Broad Street for his weekly running group to start, Glen Jackson called it “defensive running,” saying that runners have to develop a sense of what a driver is going to do.

“You can tell, when a car is coming at you, whether it is going to get over or not,” he said.

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