About a week ago I was out on a run, hoping to kick it into high gear on the last mile of a 3-mile jaunt. The weather was great. I was feeling pretty good, if a bit gassed. And as I approached the exit of a corporate parking lot in downtown Tulsa, I saw it: a commuter pulling up to the street, looking to make a turn.
I locked my eyes on her because I know how this goes down. She’s looking for cars on the street to see if it’s clear to turn. She’s not looking for me. And sure enough, she pulled right up into the street and stopped when she saw traffic, then finally noticed my movement close to her passenger side fender. She sheepishly looked my way with an apologetic smile, then turned into the street.
I know the law gives me the right-of-way to keep going, but I’ve played this game long enough to know otherwise. I stopped just short of her car because otherwise she would have driven right into me. Even in a pedestrian-dense place like downtown, people’s habits are trained to see my streets – any streets, for that matter – like they were driving in the ‘burbs. They’re only looking for other cars. Runners are an afterthought.
That’s why I’m cautious at intersections. Maybe overly so. But I don’t want to end up on someone’s hood, or under an F-150. Might makes right in any auto-pedestrian collision, law be damned. It’s just the way it is.
I got to thinking about this latest near-miss (there have been a few) because of some news in my state. It hit me pretty hard.
On Feb. 3, a driver speeding along a thoroughfare in the city of Moore, an Oklahoma City suburb, slammed into a group of high school cross-country runners. One runner was killed outright. Another died soon after. And just this past week, a third victim succumbed to his injuries. All involved were where they were supposed to be, running on the sidewalk.
Three promising, young lives, all cut short. Three grieving families who must be ripped to pieces right now. Three more runners whose lives came to an end through no fault of their own.
The circumstances surrounding this tragedy are different than what I’ve experienced in that the driver was drunk. But at the same time, the incident underscores just how vulnerable runners – any pedestrians, really – are when they’re navigating our communities on foot and in proximity to automobile traffic.
If you live in a rural area or a suburb that’s light on regulations concerning sidewalks, it’s hit-or-miss when it comes to safe places to run. Even when sidewalks are present, you’re still not safe.
We’re told to run against the flow of traffic so we can see what’s coming. To wear bright, reflective clothing. Maybe even headlamps and flashing lights attached to safety vests, just so we can be more visible. To cross at intersections, and only when the walk/don’t walk light gives us the OK. But even then we’re all one distraction away from a driver leaving their lane or breezing through a stop light… and right into us.
I don’t want to break my leg or crack open my skull when I’m on a run. I’m a solid 190 pounds, but that’s nothing compared to the 5,000 pounds of steel and glass a lot of you choose as your ride. And that’s why I’ll stop cold if I feel a driver isn’t paying attention.
So here’s the rub: I don’t know what the solution is. There are park trails I could go to that are sufficiently separated from the streets as to be practically immune to auto-pedestrian collisions. But if sidewalks aren’t meant for people to, you know, walk on, then what’s the point?
I guess all I can do is lend a voice to it. Paying attention to the road also means paying attention to what’s near the road. When you’re at an intersection, it means looking for people who might be crossing. It means not being in a rush just because someone isn’t moving through as quickly as you’d like. It means looking both ways at traffic – street traffic as well as sidewalk traffic. And if you’re driving in an area with a lot of pedestrians, it means slowing down and paying even more attention to your surroundings.
The car culture in this country runs deep. It’s entrenched to the point where cities, despite their best efforts, are ruled by how to make auto traffic flow smoothly. Anything on foot is mostly an afterthought. But a change in mindset is needed. Cities are only growing and becoming more dense, and with the cost of driving only rising, you can bet more people are looking to live and work in places where they don’t have to drive if they so choose.
In other words, when you’re behind the wheel you need to put those of us on foot on your visual checklist before hitting the gas. We’ll try to be safe, but you must do your part, too. A dent in your front fender could be all she wrote for us.