Mitigating Impact Risk at Restaurants
It is not unreasonable for customers dining at a restaurant to expect a safe environment. Health codes help ensure they are kept safe from food-related dangers, but what about those coming from outside? You may have seen news stories about cars crashing into the fronts of stores and restaurants, but you might not realize how common it is. We spoke with Rob Reiter, a leading expert in storefront crashes and founder of The Storefront Safety Council, about how common these incidents are and preventative measures restaurant operators can take to protect their property and customers.
Cars crash into buildings at the alarming rate of about 60 per day, a number largely attributed to poorly designed parking lots. About 20 percent of those incidents involve restaurants, putting the lives of diners and livelihoods of foodservice operators at risk. Reiter began his security career in government, but was troubled by the threats he saw facing civilians elsewhere.
“I realized in 2003 that far more Americans were at risk in their everyday lives – shopping, getting coffee, sitting at a restaurant – than they were from terrorist attacks,” Reiter explains. “That year in Santa Monica, Calif., an 86-year-old driver drove his Buick 1,000 feet through a crowded farmer’s market, killing 10 people and severely injuring 63 others. This event caused me to look more closely at risks to people where they live, play, shop, and eat lunch.”
While the government does not keep statistics about crashes that occur on private property, Reiter works to keep records of these accidents in an effort to understand the trends that should be addressed. These statistics show that operator and pedal error are the most common causes, and that 43 percent of cars that crash into buildings are operated by drivers who are more than 60 years old.
Bad for Business
Obviously having a car crash into a business presents an unexpected hardship, but it may surprise you how long it takes some restaurants to recover from such accidents. While businesses that sustain minimal damage may be able to reopen in a few days, in some cases it may take years, if the business is able to reopen at all.
“Safety is always a priority – as important as making a profit. Nothing will be profitable if dollars flow out to repair entrances or pay injury claims,” Reiter points out.
Restaurants can also encounter problems with being held liable for damages and injuries incurred in storefront crashes.
“It seems like there are probably more lawyers than chefs in the restaurant industry nowadays. It’s just a fact of life in our society,” says Reiter. “Usually in the event of a storefront crash that involves injuries to anyone outside the vehicle, the liability trail leads first to the driver of the car and his insurance coverage. If injuries are few and not too severe, this may be enough to repair the building and cover medical costs. But if the driver has no insurance or very low limits, [then] the business turns to its insurance coverage to cover loss of business and repairs, and the building owner turns to his insurance carrier to repair the overall structure. At this point, claims for medical and other damages start coming in, as well, and generally both the business owner and the property owner are named in those lawsuits.”
Beyond just the customer areas, there is an additional risk at restaurants that cars could strike the areas of the buildings where the kitchens are located, putting employees at risk, damaging expensive equipment, and putting the surrounding area at risk of a gas leak.
The prevalence of these incidents makes it important that business owners take steps to help protect their building and the customers inside. In some locations, those precautions are even becoming a matter of law.
“We have helped craft and pass local legislation in four states, with two more pending,” says Reiter. “California passed a basic measure that became law in 2017. We expect that building codes requiring greater protection for pedestrians, patrons, and employees will be coming online as the code updating process goes through its five-year cycle. Two simple steps can prevent tragedy: Realign parking spaces and parking lot approaches so that the fronts of cars are not pointed at your entrance or dining rooms or install affordable and effective safety barriers of some sort that will keep an errant vehicle from hitting your store or people in front of it or inside of it.”
Even for businesses that don’t operate in locations where these measures are mandated, Reiter strongly recommends taking preventive steps. Stainless steel or concrete bollards, which should be ASTM tested, are incredibly effective barriers. Such obstacles don’t have to be purely utilitarian, though. Heavy concrete planters and benches can provide some protection, while some bollards are designed to be decorative, either by standing out as a piece of art or by blending into and even complementing their surroundings.
“The Storefront Safety Council understands that no business owner wakes up in the morning saying to themselves, ‘Today is the day a driver might crash into my restaurant… maybe I should do something about it,'” says Reiter. “In many ways, any business owner is a victim of these crashes as much as an injured employee or customer except in one important way: customers cannot correct hazardous conditions, and customers cannot ask landlords to help with storefront safety improvements. Solutions are simple, solutions are effective, and solutions are far cheaper than doing nothing and paying after an accident occurs.”