In 2003, Christina Proctor was running on a dirt road in her hometown in Madison County. A man jumped out of a Honda Civic that had three other men in it, and grabbed her from behind. She picked up a log and swung at the attacker, escaped, then sprinted home.
“I was terrified for a while; I wouldn’t run by myself, wouldn’t do anything by myself,” said Proctor.
Assault and harassment are all too common for women out on a run. Here in Athens, the issue has become particularly acute.
Pandemic restrictions have scaled back, causing a rise in activity and risks for pedestrians. As a response, the city is investing in safety initiatives to improve security, but Proctor and other female runners say they rely on personal safety measures.
“Cat calling, you know, verbal assault by people, that happens on the regular,” said Proctor, who now teaches public health at the University of Georgia and runs regularly in Athens. “Once every couple of weeks there’s somebody who takes me out of the zone and makes me feel uncomfortable while I’m running.”
Catherine Shinholser, a teacher at Chase Street Elementary School in Athens shares similar safety concerns.
“I would feel unsafe if I was running by myself, so I don’t run alone in the dark anymore,” said Shinholser. “Not all the streets are well lit and there would definitely be stretches in-between street lamps where I would get nervous.”
Strength in Numbers
Finding strength in numbers is a key safety measure identified by female runners in Athens.
“I have girlfriends that I text and we do long runs on the weekends,” said Proctor. “We also have great running clubs in Athens.”
Running clubs have many benefits like social connection, motivation, accountability, and safety.
Athens Road Runners is one of many run clubs in Athens. In 2013, Tyra Byers started the group along with other local runners.
The group runs are a time for social engagement,” said Byers. “When I’m outside and see other runners, it makes me feel safer.”
In addition to her job teaching, Shinholser and her husband own Fleet Feet, a running store in Athens. Fleet Feet also hosts regular group runs in the community.
“With group runs, you know you can show up and have someone to run with which is really nice,” said Shinholser.
Running in groups can alleviate the personal safety measures many female runners take while running alone, like carrying protection or using GPS trackers.
“If I’m running by myself on a less trafficked area like the trails, I carry mace tucked in my pocket or in my running vest,” said Shinholser.
Vehicular Safety Following the Pandemic
Distracted drivers appear more frequently in university towns, and vehicles pose risks for all runners, not only women. The distinction is that female runners already have to think about many other things when they run alone.
I’ve had a lot of near hits,” said Shinholser. “Students in particular, texting and driving.”
“Every time I’ve almost been hit it’s been a college student pulling out somewhere on their phone, not paying attention,” said Proctor. “I really think more enforcement of distracted driving would make me feel safer as a runner.”
Distracted driving is not new for female runners in Athens, but the pandemic has spawned changes for public safety. Decreases in population mobility correspond with an overall decrease seen in vehicular traffic.
“For the first half of the pandemic, activity and crime went down notably,” said Daniel Silk, chief of the University of Georgia police department. “Now, by every measure crime is going back to more normal rates in Athens. I think largely just by virtue of the fact that we’re going back to some semblance of a normal society.”
As activity increases, more people and drivers will be on the streets of Athens.
“We forget that sometimes the dangers posed by other humans are humans on the other side of a 4000-pound car,” said Silk.
UGA’s police force works closely with the Athens Clarke County police department to accommodate recent increases in vehicular traffic. This year, the city invested in sophisticated camera systems to better detect distracted driving and vehicular-pedestrian accidents downtown.
“The new systems are designed to focus on high traffic pedestrian and vehicle areas,” said Silk. “They will really give us the ability, like with vehicle accidents, to frequently go after the fact and figure out what happened.”
Changing the Conversation
Conversations about female running safety are critical, but must be distinguished from victim blaming. There is no such thing as ‘asking for it’ and it’s not a woman’s responsibility to protect herself from uncontrollable situations.
I think work still needs to be done before this is seen as a humankind issue, not a women’s issue,” said Shara Cherniak, a professor of women’s studies at UGA.
Female runners can take all possible precautions and still end up a victim, but safety measures are an important part of what helps women stay confident and have less stressful workouts.
People of all backgrounds, ages, genders, and abilities have a right to feel safe when running in Athens. Special attention is paid to women since they face higher rates of assault when running, and have to consider this alongside other safety concerns.
Although there are a number of measures women can take to feel more empowered when running, a change in collective attitudes will ultimately be what makes a difference for women’s running safety.
Until this is seen as a societal issue, safety measures must be incorporated as a way to improve confidence, instead of a victim-blaming prevention tactic.
Eloise Cappelletti is a journalism major at the University of Georgia.
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