Safety advocates: Cars crash into buildings ‘all the time’

In March, two people were killed and 13 were injured when vehicles were driven into two different restaurants and one storefront in three separate incidents in D.C. and Virginia.

Rob Reiter, co-founder of the Storefront Safety Council, said that many people believe that instances of drivers crashing into buildings are rare; but the data his organization has collected shows otherwise.

“These accidents happen all the time. They happen for all kinds of reasons, and the majority of them are preventable,” he said.

There are an estimated 60 collisions with buildings every day across the U.S., according to data compiled by Reiter and co-founder Mark Wright.

The most common type of crash is due to what Reiter calls “pedal error,” which is when someone thinks they have their foot on the brake, but they actually have it on the accelerator. A variation is when drivers believe they have the car in drive but they actually have it in reverse.

Wright has firsthand experience with that kind of crash.

He was at a 7-Eleven along Rockville Pike in 2008 when a driver pulling into a space failed to brake.

“And the next thing I knew a split second later, my hands were on the hood of her car as I was being crashed backward into the store. And luckily, her vehicle did come to a stop.”

Wright said it took nine months and multiple surgeries “to get put back together,” but he said that he is fortunate to be here now to tell the story.

Storefront Safety Council’s data is based on information found in media reports across the country “which is clearly an inexact science,” Wright said. “We’ve talked with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and other places trying to figure out how we can get publicly sourced data.”

Reiter said the organization is working with Lloyd’s of London to audit their findings. Both say they believe that crashes involving vehicles and buildings are undercounted because many won’t prompt media coverage.

Reiter said it’s a common belief that older drivers are responsible for such crashes, but he said according to their findings, “The actual incidents are pretty evenly spread across the whole driving population.”

While 39% of drivers involved are 60 and older, the remaining drivers behind the wheel when vehicles strike buildings are nearly evenly split among those up to 30 years old and those between 30 and 60 years old.

One solution, according to Reiter and Wright, would be for shopping centers and storefronts to retrofit their parking lots and parking spaces by placing barriers or bollards in front of the building, so that pedestrians heading into the business are protected, as are sidewalk diners and employees.

“You’ll find that most of the big convenience store chains now are putting up bollards automatically. It saves on lawsuits and it saves on property damage and so forth,” Reiter said. But he’s not seeing a lot of retrofitting and going back to do it on older stores, which he said is “just too bad.”

Wright said part of the push is to encourage the insurance industry to offer incentives in the form of discounts, for example, to businesses to include barriers as part of their design. Currently businesses may shy away from the initial investment of installing barriers; but when compared with the expense and trauma that can result after a crash, “the cost of those bollards and whatever other barriers they want to use pales in comparison.”

Wright said that as a result of the crash that injured him, he had to have one knee reconstructed. Fourteen years later, he has what he calls some “annoying residual effects.”

Wright said that in many cases, where vehicles crash through storefronts, the injuries may be deemed not life-threatening by officials.

“They may be nonlife threatening, but they’re almost always life-changing,” Wright said.

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Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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