Some runners in the dark about visibility

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On Jan. 7th, the day the sports editor of this newspaper told me another column was due, the weather set a record high temperature and my morning run was in shorts and t-shirt. Talk about global warming! It's interesting that with our highly variable weather, most years provide at least a few "shorts days" even in the dead of winter. Warm, but still dark.

With few hours of daylight, most of us are currently running in the dark-either early morning or after coming home from work. Usually I run in the mornings, but a few weeks ago I turned out for one of the Oak Park Runners Club's Monday evening fun runs-and I noticed something disturbing.

Even some of the more experienced running veterans weren't very visible, and with quite a few cars still on the streets it made me a little nervous. One member of our group had a flashing red light strapped to his arm, but was otherwise wearing darker running clothes. I was about a half-block behind him and realized that he was just barely visible. By contrast, a young guy, new to the club, was wearing a reflective vest over a long-sleeved white t-shirt and was very visible in approaching car headlights. Several other runners were also wearing dark clothing, but were mixed in with the more visible ones and were thus semi-protected from oncoming traffic.

Now more attuned to the problem, I was on a morning run with the OWies in River Forest a couple of days later and noticed the same thing. Those who were wearing reflectors or light colored clothing showed up clearly in automobile headlights, while those without were not nearly as visible (however, at 5:30 a.m. there aren't very many cars out there). But if you think that a bright red jacket is a good safety beacon, think again. In darkness it's only good if it has reflectors. Frankly, I was a bit dismayed to see guys with years of experience running with such minimal protection.

Some running attire has reflective panels or trim, and most shoes have at least a few small reflectors, but thus assuming you're well protected might not be true. On a few occasions I turned off the lights at home and used a flashlight to see if my stuff hanging in the closet was actually reflective. Sometimes I've been surprised at how poorly it worked. Also, some of those little blinky red lights provide only minimal protection unless they are very bright and aimed in the proper direction. Don't assume that wearing one automatically makes you safe.

Walking to the train after work in Downtown Chicago I occasionally see a guy on a bike pedaling west along Madison Street in dark clothing, with no lights, no reflectors, nothing. How he survived this long is a mystery, and this in heavy traffic during the evening rush hour! I discontinued my bike commuting as of Nov. 1st when daylight saving time ended, simply because I didn't want to risk riding in traffic in the dark-and I use a bright flasher and wear reflective clothing.

I know, I know, it sounds like nagging, but it's for our own good.

Paul Oppenheim is a member of the Oak Park Runners Club.

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