I first heard the term in the late 80’s. It was 7th hour, fourth quarter of my sophomore year, and I was ecstatic to be sitting in my first Driver’s Ed class. That day, I sort of listened to the instructor, but mostly was thinking about driving. Somewhere in the midst of a dream sequence that had me getting a convertible VW Bug for my upcoming birthday (nope, didn’t happen, drove my mom’s mini van instead), I was startled as the instructor wrote defensive driving on the board in big, bold letters. I jotted this down, thinking it might be on the test, but wasn’t really all that interested in his definition. I thought defensive driving meant being ready to flip off anyone who offended me while driving. You know, a defend my honor kind of thing. Or maybe, I thought it meant to tear away from a speedster tailing me on the expressway.
I don’t remember what the instructor said, but I’m sure it must have sounded close to (i.e. almost as boring as)this online definition: Defensive driving is driving characterized by prudence, diligence and reasonable cautiousness with the goal of making the road a safe place not only for a defensive driver but for other people as well. (Can you say… Bueller? What is defensive driving? Anyone? Bueller?)
I’m sure I remembered that. Not.
My take away from his lecture was be careful and don’t get distracted by other cars or my friends in my car. Also, don’t get a ticket.
Let’s face it, I was as much of an idiot as any 16 year old driver. Even with all of the warnings, I didn’t really grasp the enormous responsibility that came with driving a vehicle until years later. I was lucky I never got into an accident.
Recently, I passed a student driver stopped at a stoplight. Instinctively, I ran the opposite direction as I flashed back to the infinite wisdom of me at 16. I wanted to be far away from that gum smacking, texting kid. As I ran away, I thought about the poor punk. I needed to be nicer because while yes, the little 16 year old indeed ranked higher on the threat to runners, walkers, bikers and anything with a pulse scale, I realized that all drivers (and runners, walkers, etc.) need to be careful. I had just as big a responsibility to be a defensive runner as the punk did to be a defensive driver.
Wanting to get to the bottom of this revelation and put it into action, I googled defensive driving when I got home, just to revisit that original definition, and see how I could apply it to running. Thankfully, my friends at Wikipedia had collaborated with my driver’s ed teacher and developed some keys (intentional pun) to defensive driving:
Stay focused, keeping your hands on the wheel. While as runners we obviously don’t have a steering wheel, we do steer our bodies. My loose translation is to keep my head on a swivel, always on the lookout for distractions. A good run can take me into a zen-like state where I’m either mentally solving each and every one of my problems, or I’m deep in conversation with my running partner. I’m sure I’m not alone in either situation. So, runners, don’t get so far into your zen that you forget that you’re “steering your own ship.”
Keep your eyes moving. Unless you’re on a treadmill, the terrain is going to change. Things can come at you from all directions, so it’s important to look ahead of you and scan your surrounding area. Watch for cars coming around a corner on the street you’re crossing. Watch for foxes darting in front of you on an early a.m. run (happened to me). Be on the lookout for city dogs and country dogs – they are equally as territorial and just plain don’t like runners. The bottom line – scan as you run, for you never know what’s going to pop up along the way.
Stay alert. My sisters constantly tell me, “you really shouldn’t listen to music when you run.” Yes, I know this. They’re right, but I’m sorry I enjoy music and can’t live without my podcasts like No Meat Athlete or One Part Plant. So, I do the next best thing and keep the volume low, making sure I can still hear things around me like barking dogs, honking horns, and any other big threats. Note that it is certainly safer to run without headphones, but again, I know we as runners sometimes need tunes to keep us moving. So, be smart with your audio intake.
Go with the flow. Let’s talk races. Sometimes, as you’re minding your own 26.2 miles of business, things are going to get bottlenecked. As a runner you’ll no doubt feel frustrated and perhaps a little edgy. It may be so crowded that you just can’t floor it and bolt ahead. Therefore, adjust to the pace of your surroundings, wait it out, and proceed when it’s safe for everyone around you. Similarly, there are times when weather will be extreme, and you’ll need to adjust your pace, hydration, wardrobe, or the length of time you devote to the run. Again, go with the flow. You can’t control everything, but you can make adjustments to be more comfortable.
Make yourself visible. This is a big one in the land of defensive running. If you run early morning or late afternoon/evening in the winter, you really need to light yourself up like the fourth of July. Why? (Duh…) Because people can’t see you, and if they can’t see you, you run a huge risk of getting hit. Period. Therefore, invest in clothing with reflective features. Wear a headlamp, flashing light, reflective vest or whatever it takes to draw attention to yourself.
Adapt to road conditions. Hello, fellow crazies. Even with the best Craft base layers in place, there are some days when running outside just isn’t cool. Icy conditions are what I’m talking about here. Below zero temps aren’t advisable either. When these situations happen, there’s this thing called a treadmill that might be a better bet. However, when the weather isn’t too crazy, simply dress for the temps and keep in mind that slippery roads mean cars can’t stop as quickly. Rain means a driver’s vision might be impaired and they might not see you like they could on a clear day. Be smart and always consider what you and the drivers need to do to be safe during whatever Mother Nature is giving you.
Finally, the most important piece of defensive running advice… defending the run. And this is where I’m talking about defending your honor, runners. There will be people who think you’re crazy for early a.m. runs, 20 milers, marathons, ultras, and quite simply your daily dedication to the sport. To them, I hate to tell you, but there’s really nothing you can say. They probably won’t ever understand. Just smile at them, and be polite runners on the streets, stopping at corners and running on the right side of the road. They think we’re crazy enough the way it is, we can’t add being idiots to the mix.
So friends, when you’re out there on the streets…be sure to look both ways, be visible, and be smart whether you’re on your feet or behind the wheel!
by abbey algiers