The Basics: Running safely in the dark

Posted by Dave on August 31, 2011 | 9 Comments

The Energizer Night Race (source:

As the days begin to get shorter in the north and the school year wreaks havoc on running schedules, more and more runners are taking to the streets in the dark. I was surprised to realize last week that as the summer wanes, I once again need a headlamp for my regular 6 a.m. run with my local running club.

But as I run in to town on these mornings, I’m equally surprised to see many runners with no illumination at all, and even more who aren’t wearing reflective running gear, despite running along a busy thoroughfare. In the U.S. in 2008, over 4,000 pedestrians were killed in traffic accidents, and nearly half of those accidents occurred at night, despite the fact that there are significantly fewer cars and pedestrians during those hours.

If you run in the dark, you can increase your chances of avoiding an accident by wearing clothing that makes you more visible. Bright-colored clothing can help a little, but reflective running gear and lights improve your odds even more. Think of it this way: Car drivers at night are primarily looking out for other cars and traffic markings. All of these things are illuminated, have reflectors, or both. If you want to be seen, you need to look like the things car drivers are looking for, as this study I wrote up a few years ago for Cognitive Daily attests.

Take a look at the photo above and notice how easy it is to spot the runners, despite the fact that they are dressed in black! They have reflective print on their shirts and bright headlights: The reflectors are what matter, not the color of their outfits. With that in mind, here are some tips for running safely in the dark:

  • Wear clothing with true reflective patches (not just light-colored clothing!), or buy a reflective vest to wear over your regular running gear. Some shoes come with reflective patches — test yours by shining your car lights or a flashlight on them at night. But you also want to wear reflective clothing at driver’s-eye-level.
  • For more visibility, consider buying flashing lights that attach to your clothing or vest. The Blue Ridge Relay, a 30-hour relay race I’ll be competing in next week, requires that all runners have flashing lights both front and back
  • Wear a headlamp to improve your ability to see the roadway or path. This might not be necessary on well-lit streets. Important: Runners’ headlamps aren’t especially visible to drivers, so make sure you have other reflective/illuminated gear. From a distance, they look a lot like porchlights. You might think your head would bob up and down as you run to make it clear to drivers that you’re moving, but in fact runners’ heads stay remarkably steady, and a headlamp generally appears to drivers as a steady light.
  • On streets without sidewalks, run on the left side of the road, facing traffic. This makes it easier for you to jump off the road if it’s clear a driver doesn’t see you.
  • Tip: I find my headlamp is much more comfortable if I wear it over a hat, rather than directly on my head
  • There’s plenty of other reflective gear you can buy: Hats, gloves, belts, wrist/legbands, you name it. The more you wear, the more likely it is that drivers will spot you.
  • If you run with an iPod or other audio device, keep the volume low enough that you can hear traffic

I’m going to try something new for Science-Based Running: A poll to see how our readers run in the dark. If we get enough responses, I’ll add polls to more posts in the future.

If you have other tips for running in the dark, share them in the comments. Stay safe out there!


9 Responses to “The Basics: Running safely in the dark”

  1. Anne C. Hanna
    August 31st, 2011 @ 11:57 pm

    I’m fortunate enough to have always lived in places where I can run entirely on sidewalks or park paths, and even in the daytime I cross streets in a pretty paranoid way. I also usually have the luxury of scheduling runs in the daytime or sufficiently late at night that traffic has fallen off a bit. The few times I’m running during the high-traffic, low-visibility dusk hours it’s usually on a treadmill in a gym anyway. As for my clothes, there are some reflective bands on my water belt because that’s the way it came, but I don’t tend to wear specific reflective gear.

    With all of this, the only close call I’ve ever had was in broad daylight when some woman decided that it was her turn to go at a stop sign instead of mine, when I was already halfway across the street. So I feel sort of justified relying more on being alert to my surroundings than on others being alert to me.

    If I was running on the road shoulder instead of a sidewalk, though, you can bet I’d be coated head to toe in reflective tape and lights. As a bike commuter, I know the shoulder can be a pretty scary place to be sometimes.

  2. Tom D
    September 1st, 2011 @ 12:17 am

    I’m not sure the choice for reflective shoes is a real one, I think all of my recent running shoes have had some kind of reflective material on them without me actively having to select them.
    I didn’t check the clothing option but on further reflection, I do have an Illuminite shirt that I wear in the winter (long sleeve).

    Great post, great poll!

  3. Anne C. Hanna
    September 2nd, 2011 @ 2:28 am

    Tom D, I agree that pretty much all the conventional running shoes I’ve ever seen have reflectivity built in, but some of the less conventional apparel (like the Vibram Fivefinger shoes I use) doesn’t.

  4. Halam
    December 3rd, 2011 @ 12:41 pm

    I wear a fixed red light at rear also. One foot went into an access hole that had lost its cover during the week. Cars stopped to help me despite the dark.

    My top tip is to keep knees bent – its easier to soak up unexpected bumps and drops.

  5. Gill
    July 8th, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    Keep Me Safe App: We are looking for Android users to test Keep Me Safe. See how it works RT

  6. nancy
    September 11th, 2012 @ 4:53 am

    I checked off shoes just because they come with some reflectivity, like a couple of others mentioned. On my early morning runs from home, I always wear a reflective belt. Easy to use and easy to see.

  7. Gary Kowalczyk
    September 12th, 2012 @ 9:19 pm

    I personally wear the original LED light vest. This thing pumps out a ton of white light in front and it has red LEDs in back to keep me safe / visible. There was one at Hood to Coast last weekend and it did a great job.

  8. Brian
    March 13th, 2013 @ 7:56 am

    I normally wear a lightweight reflective top (a bit like a workman’s, yellow with big reflective sripes), a headtorch and reflective bands round my ankles as the movement catches drivers eyes and car headlights usually aim down at the road. Must say; most reflective runners bibs (with the little thin reflectives and orange mesh) are rubbish as you can usually see peoples bare legs before you see they have a bib on!

  9. Eva zheng
    August 28th, 2014 @ 6:19 am

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