Of all the ways to stay active outdoors during the dark days of winter, you’d think walking might be the simplest and safest. What could be easier than bundling up before dinner and taking a brisk half-hour walk around the neighborhood?
Alas, you live in North Carolina, a number of other activities. According to a recent report by the advocacy group Transportation for America even walking in broad daylight is a risky proposition in the Tarheel state. Riskier still if you happen to live in the Triangle, found by the group’s just-released Dangerous By Design study to be the nation’s sixth most dangerous metropolitan area to walk in. Forty-three pedestrians were killed in the Triangle in 2007 and 2008, earning the region a Pedestrian Danger Index — a calculation of the rate of pedestrian deaths compared to the amount of walking local residents do — of 128.6. (While the Triangle was the sixth worst place to walk in the nation among metro areas with populations of 1 million or more, it was a safer place to walk than six North Carolina cities: Rocky Mountain, Wilmington, Burlington and Greenville all ranked as more dangerous places to walk. Go here for a rundown of North Carolina’s 15 biggest cities.)
That we don’t live in the most pedestrian-friendly area comes as no surprise, especially if you live in a neighborhood built during much of the 20th century. Sidewalks are a rarity in all but the oldest neighborhoods built during that period, forcing pedestrians to walk in traffic. And it’s not simply that the pedestrian was forgotten during this time; In some cases, development was downright hostile toward the non-motorized. Witness the traffic patterns around most schools built from the late 1960s through the 1990s, which appear to have used streets as moats to protect them from hordes of children walking to school. It’s not that kids don’t walk or ride their bikes to school because they’re lazy. It simply isn’t safe.
Thankfully, that’s starting to change. New housing developments — Southern Village and Meadowmont in Chapel Hill, Biltmore Park in Asheville come immediately to mind — have become aggressive about making neighborhoods safe for walking and riding bikes. There’s even some encouraging news in Transportation for America’s Dangerous By Design study: The Triangle may be the sixth most dangerous place to walk, but it ranks 30th — ahead of outdoors-friendly Denver — in per capita spending on sidewalks and such.
But unless you live in a Meadowmont or one of the state’s other emerging pedestrian-friendly developments, you need to take precautions if you want to walk the neighborhood at night. You need to make sure that you’re seen by the vehicles with which you share the road. And you can do so for a minimal investment.
“It’s probably worth it to pay $20 to $30 to be able to [walk] at night,” says Bobby Mack, with The Athletes Foot store in Raleigh’s Cameron Village. In fact, says Mack, you needn’t spend that much.
With that, Mack pulls down a $13.99 Brooks wristband made of 3M reflective material that also includes a series of blinking LED lights. The band can go around either your wrist or ankle, and Mack says it’s especially effective at attracting attention because the swinging motion is more effective at catching the beam of a car’s headlight. Plus, the motion is more suggestive of a living object.
“As soon as the clocks were turned back,” Mack says of the recent switch from Daylight Savings Time, “we started selling out of these.” A cheaper ($10 MSRP), lower tech version is also available. (While The Athlete’s Foot caters to runners, Mack, who is also the assistant cross-country coach at N.C. State, says the store sells most of its reflective gear to walkers.)
Also popular, says Mack, are lightweight reflective vests and hats, both of which can be found for $20 to $30. Mack says some nightwalkers use LED headlamps, which sell for as little as $15.
If you want maximum coverage, Chuck Millsaps a couple doors down at the Great Outdoor Provision Co. recommends the Brooks LSD Lite Jacket. The jacket is about 75 percent reflective neon green and weighs 4.3 ounces. At $95, it’s also a pricier solution.
Once you’re sure you’ll be seen while walking at night, a few tips to further insure you have a safe, healthy workout (with input from the Springfield, Mo., police department):
- When possible, walk with someone.
- Don’t use headphones. You rely more on your ears at night.
- Avoid shortcuts.
- If someone in a vehicle asks for directions, answer from a distance. Do not approach the vehicle.
- Walk against traffic. It’s easier to take evasive action if need be.
- Be aware that there’s often a noticeable temperature drop after sunset and dress appropriately.
- When feasible, let someone know your route and when you expect to be back.
- Use a headlamp or flashlight when your route includes uneven surfaces.
- Take your cell phone in case you need to summons help.
That’s all I’ve got. If you’re a veteran night walker and have a tip, by all means share.