Defensive Running in an Era of Distracted Driving

Wed, 12 June 2013 - 1:01 a.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Runners have always known that sharing the road with cars can be dangerous. We use all the traditional cautionary techniques, including wearing reflective clothing, staying to the side and favoring daylight runs, and keeping a heightened attentiveness that can even preclude the use of personal stereo equipment.

If you’ve been running out of doors within the last five years, however, you may have noticed a new level of danger—with the advent of smart phones, distracted driving has become truly pandemic. The statistics tell the tale. Ordinarily, every two miles, the average driver makes 400 hundred observations, 40 decisions, and one mistake. The data was gathered by Malcolm Gladwell several years ago. He goes on, “Once every 500 miles, one of those mistakes leads to a near collision, and once every 6,100 miles one of those mistakes leads to a crash. When people drive, in other words, mistakes are endemic and accidents inevitable.” Gladwell was writing back in 2001! Since then, technology has complicated things for runners and cyclists on America’s roads considerably.

A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found a texting trucker traveling 55 mph might drive the length of a football field without looking at the road. Driver attention has suffered from extreme bouts of degradation not just due to the ubiquity of mobile phones that can text—but add to this an array of phones and handheld devices that can surf.

The Evidence is in:

  •  In 2009, 5,474 people were killed in crashes involving driver distraction, and an estimated 448,000 were injured. 
  •  20% of injury crashes in 2009 involved reports of distracted driving. 
  •  In the month of June 2011, more than 196 billion text messages were sent or received in the US, up nearly 50% from June 2009.
  •   40% of all American teens say they have been in a car when the driver used a cell phone in a way that put people in danger. 
  •  Text messaging creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted.
  • A University of Utah study found that using a cell phone while driving—whether it's hand-held or hands-free delays a driver's reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08%. 
  • A Carnegie Mellon study found that driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37%.

Types of Distracted Driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lists three types of distracted driving: manual, visual, and cognitive. Anything that takes your hands off the wheel, eyes off the road, or your mind off driving counts. Text messaging involves all three.

But while everyone can recognize manual and visual distractions, researchers say cognitive distraction—drivers actually taking their minds off the task of driving—can be particularly dangerous. Research shows people do not multi-task, according to the National Safety Council. “Human brains do not perform two tasks at the same time,” the NSC said in a March 2010 report. “Instead, the brain handles tasks sequentially, switching between one task and another. Brains can juggle tasks very rapidly, which leads us to erroneously believe we are doing two tasks at the same time.” When a motorist’s brain is “overloaded” by talking on a phone, “the driver may not be consciously aware of which critical roadway information is being filtered out,” the report said. These distractions affect those using hand-held or hands-free phones.

The Science of Expectation. Researchers in 1999 Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons showed subjects a video, about a minute long, of two teams, one in white shirts, the other in black shirts, moving around and passing basketballs to one another. They are asked to count the number of ball passes made by the team wearing white. Halfway through the video, a woman wearing a full-body gorilla suit walks slowly to the middle of the screen, pounds her chest, and then walks out of the frame. If you are just watching the video, the appearance of the gorilla is incredibly obvious. When people are asked to count passes, though, about half the subjects miss it.

If you’re focused on something else—like talking on the phone—and not expecting something unusual—like a runner appearing in front of your car as you pull out of a gas station, you might look right at the runner and not “see” her.

Intuitively, we believe that we "see" everything in our field of vision—particularly things right in front of us. But, like Chabris and Simons, New School psychologist Arien Mack found in her work that objects plainly in the field of vision that were not the focus of her subjects attention went completely unnoticed. Mack calls this phenomenon "inattentional blindness."

So what can you do to protect yourself out on the roads that you aren’t already doing?

First, realize that handheld technology isn’t going away and the resulting interconnectivity of everyone at all times, when combined with increased motor vehicle traffic, has heightened injury risk for runners to levels far greater than at any other time in history. In the early 90s, say, the odds of a person traveling in a car having a conversation with someone who may be distracting them was limited to whether there was a passenger in the car with them. That era is decisively behind us.

And realize that in a car with a passenger, conversations are routinely squelched, interrupted or otherwise put on hold when a complex driving situations occur that both people can see and interpret as worthy of their full attention. Think of a child’s ball rolling slowly out from a double-parked delivery truck; as passengers we instinctively silence ourselves to allow the driver of the car to negotiate the potentially hazardous predicament. People do not have the same information when they are speaking to someone driving over the phone.

Defensive Running. Beyond increased awareness of a growing problem, it helps to default to the interpretation that slow-rolling cars in parking lots or at stop signs are completely blind to you. In short, nothing less than defensive running is called for.

Vocalize. If you’re approaching such a vehicle, it doesn’t hurt to make noise. A simple “Heads up!” will do, and they’ll most likely appreciate it. 

Wear orange. Loud clothing is an old standby, and it does help your visibility.

Watch for slow creeping cars. Some of the most hazardous spots out there are parking lots, gas stations, alleyways, and intersections where you approach from the right, and drivers creep forward to make a right on red, and you see them looking to their left for cars. This is among the most common dangerous situations. 

Run behind. For this reason always run behind, never in front, of stopped or slow-rolling cars.

Learn to read cars. Almost like human faces, cars seem to have micro-expressions that you can actually learn to read. Studying the front grill and the subtle pattern of its motion is very valuable. Obviously this is the foremost part of the vehicle, and as such the one that will strike you first, so watch it closely. It used to be enough to try and make eye contact with the driver as you crossed paths with a stopped vehicle. Because of attentional blindness, however, you’re better off focusing on the exact movements of the automobile itself to plan for sudden lurches out into your footpath.

The reality is that cars that roll from a stop in a parking lot are now a lot more dangerous than 10 years ago. After all, they are the most likely to be texting or calling with a “Hey, I’m on my way” or a “Which apartment is it again?”  They could easily be on Google Maps or typing the location into an onboard GPS when they fail to see you.

Beware of freeway ramps. Another significant hazard is the freeway exit or entrance ramp. These cars are either coming from a high speed or aggressively accelerating, and either way they do not expect foot traffic around these ramps.

Remain alert. A company called earHero has devised an earphone that allows you to hear traffic and other noises in your environment while listening to music. Developed by an audiologist, the earphones are tiny enough that they don’t block the ear canal. You can find info on earHero at

The Young and the Dangerous. Finally, know that the nation’s youngest and most inexperienced drivers are most at risk of distracted crashes, with 16% of all distracted driving crashes involving drivers under 20. But they are not alone. Never forget that at any given moment during daylight hours, over 800,000 vehicles are being driven by someone using a hand-held cell phone.


U.S. Department of Transportation NHTSA, Washington, D.C.,


Michigan News, Feb. 5, 2012, “Cellphones and Distracted Driving: What Happens When the Brain is Overloaded? The Answer will Surprise You,” by John Agar,


The New Yorker, June 11, 2001, “Wrong Turn: How the Fight to Make America's Highways Safer Went off Course,” by Malcolm Gladwell,



(RUNNING & FITNEWS® January / February 2012 • Volume 30, Number 1)


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