Running Legal, Running Safe

Author: Attorney Christopher A. Meyer

As anyone who drives in Virginia has noticed, there has been an incredible increase in the number of people running or jogging on Virginia’s roads. This is part of a national surge in running. For example there are now more than 400 different marathons in the United States, and some have 40,000 contestants.

All of those runners and joggers need to run, jog, and train somewhere. Most of them use the public road system to get their miles in. Many runners act as if the roads belong to them alone, and many drivers treat runners as they would a squirrel who comes onto the road in front of them. What is the law? Who really has the right of way and when?

The Code of Virginia has many statutes dealing with the interaction of pedestrians — of which runners form a subset — and motor vehicles. The primary rule is that runners and all other pedestrians should stay off of any road where there is a sidewalk or other prepared path. Where there is no path they should use the extreme left side of the road and run facing traffic. Emergency room statistics indicate that runners are twice as likely to be injured in accidents with cars while running with traffic rather than against traffic. Note that using the extreme left side of the road means running single file. A person running alongside a friend who is running on the extreme left side is not himself running on the extreme left side.

At intersections the rules are interesting. As one would expect, pedestrians — including runners — have the right of way in a crosswalk. They also have the right of way at any regular pedestrian crossing at the end of blocks, and at any intersection where the speed limit is 35 miles an hour or less. Of course, runners are required to obey the traffic control devices such as lights and pedestrian control signals. If a pedestrian runner has partially completed a crossing when the pedestrian control signal changes the pedestrian may legally continue crossing until a sidewalk or safety island has been reached. A motorist must allow a pedestrian to complete the crossing.

Runners crossing properly at any intersection have the right of way over vehicles turning either left or right. In fact, the law states that “the drivers of vehicles entering, crossing, or turning at intersections shall change their course, slow down, or stop if necessary to permit pedestrians to cross such intersections safely and expeditiously.” A further statute states that a vehicle making a right turn on red must yield the right of way to any pedestrian lawfully within an adjacent crosswalk. Of course the law and common sense both indicate that a pedestrian runner shall not enter an intersection in disregard of approaching traffic.

Between intersections, the law is not as favorable to pedestrian runners who attempt to cross the street. The law requires a pedestrian to cross a highway at an intersection whenever possible. It also requires that pedestrian runners shall not interfere with the orderly passage of vehicles when crossing, and that they shall not step into a highway at a point between intersections where they cannot be readily seen, as in stepping out from behind a parked car. Vehicles entering a highway from a private road or alley are, of course, required to yield the right of way to pedestrians lawfully traveling on the sidewalk.

Following these rules, including crossing at intersections where possible, running facing traffic, using sidewalks where possible, and obeying pedestrian control signals, will help keep a runner safe. But even where the law is on the runner’s side, a runner doesn’t want to be “dead right.” A few additional suggestions might be in order.

First, most runners have day jobs and that means long runs must be done in the mornings or evenings. In winter this means in the dark. Wearing at least a reflective vest if not actually wearing a light may save your life. Try not to run alone, but if you must, be sure to let someone know where you are going so that if you don’t return they will know where to search. Carry ID with you at all times. Running with an IPOD or other distraction may make a run more fun, but if you can’t hear a car coming you may be in big trouble very fast. Run against traffic, even if you don’t like facing headlights; it’s the law, and the car you don’t see coming behind you may not see you either. Respect vehicles even when you have the right of way. Whether the car or the runner has the right of way in a particular situation, a collision is likely to be far worse for the runner.

Run happy. Run safe. Run legal.

About the Author: Chris Meyer is a personal injury attorney with Allen & Allen and an avid runner. Chris has completed marathons and triathalons. As an attorney, he has authored numerous appellate briefs and has written articles and seminar materials on issues such as insurance coverage, legal ethics and evolving case law in Virginia.