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Perils of the Parking Lot: Why You're Still at Risk at Low Speed

By Autumn Cafiero Giusti

parking lot accidentCruising the mall parking garage at 5 mph might not be as dangerous as doing 70 on the freeway -- but it also doesn't mean you're immune from accidents.

Parking lots can be a hotbed for fender benders and even pedestrian accidents that result in bodily harm. According to the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers Association, 1 in 5 accidents takes place in a parking lot. During the holiday season, that number increases to 2 in 5 accidents because of the large volume of traffic and shoppers and rushing to the malls.

"People don't realize that a lot of parking lots are like the wild, wild West," says Barry P. Goldberg, a personal injury attorney in Woodland Hills, California. "They don't regulate stops at every aisle, and people forget that they can't just turn in front of other vehicles,"

Dan Young has been observing accident trends as U.S. brand president for CARSTAR, a national network of auto body repair experts, and chairman of the National Auto Body Council's Distracted Driving Initiative.

He says some cars have improved technology, such as backup cameras and sensors, to help people avoid parking lot accidents. But the auto market is still not yet to the point where that technology is a standard feature on most vehicles, so drivers need to take precautions and be alert.

"You almost have to be more careful in parking lots because there aren't the same kinds of sophisticated rules of the road," Young says. "And because they're often on private property, the police don't always investigate."

Minor damage, major expense

While parking lot accidents typically yield minimal damage, they can still leave a sizable dent in your pocketbook.

Even if the damage costs less than your insurance deductible, the bill often amounts to the better part of that sum. A scratch or an expensive car bumper can cost more than $1,000 to fix.

Even at low speeds, vehicles can still incur enough of an impact to bend a suspension piece. And that damage might not become apparent until weeks or months after the accident, says Rob Mullner, who goes by the title of chief auto enthusiast for Auto Parts Warehouse and has blogged about the subject on the APW website.

Although most parking lot accidents tend to involve vehicle damage only, injuries and fatalities do happen, and they typically involve pedestrians.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an average of 1,621 people are killed annually in what it classifies as "nontraffic" crashes. These are mostly crashes that take place in parking lots and driveways or on private roads.

Of this total, about 39 percent of these people are nonoccupants, such as pedestrians and bicyclists. And on average, 91,000 people are injured in these crashes each year.

A closer look at parking lot design

The very design of parking lots lends itself to greater opportunities for accidents, says Eran Ben-Joseph, professor of landscape architecture and urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In most parking lots, there's no clear separation between pedestrians and cars, Ben-Joseph says. Cars end up driving through what is essentially a shared pedestrian walkway to find a parking spot.

And cars that are backing out of spaces can hit other vehicles and pedestrians that they might not see.

Ben-Joseph has advocated for parking lots that incorporate a walkway that leads pedestrians from the parking lot to the door and isolates them from traffic, so that they don't have to walk between aisles of parked cars.

What to do after an accident

Drivers who get into parking lot accidents are advised to treat the situation much like they would a roadway accident.

"There are steps you should take to make sure your property and everything else is well protected," says Todd Berg, attorney at Michigan Auto Law in Farmington Hills, Michigan.

He advises people to contact the police after an accident, whether it takes place on the highway or in a parking lot.

"It's the best way to protect your rights if you have some sort of bodily injury," Berg says. "It's also the best way to protect your rights if there's property damage involved."

That way, if you have to make a claim with your insurance company or testify in court, it's easier to make your case as to why the other person is at fault.

But there's one wrinkle when it comes to police response to parking lot accidents: Most parking lots are located on private property. For that reason, a police officer might not be willing to come out to the scene.

Even if that's the case, it's still advisable to go to the police station as soon as possible and file a report stating what happened, Berg says. "That's how you memorialize your version of events at a time that's extremely close to when things went down," he says.

Document everything you can after a parking lot accident. Here are some tips to follow:

  • Exchange insurance information with the other driver.
  • Take pictures of the position of the vehicles after the accident.
  • Take pictures of any damage to your car or the other driver's car
  • Document the other car's make, model and license plate number.
  • Document the other driver's name, phone number and a work number.

"If you're able to corral all of the accident information, that could at some point could be useful to your insurance carrier," Young says.

Finding fault

Determining who's at fault in any accident can be tricky. In a parking lot things can get even more confusing, especially in cases when two cars back into each other at the same time.

If you can't get the police to the scene, Goldberg suggests allowing the insurance companies to determine who's at fault, rather than trying to work things out independently. Most insurance companies have claims adjustors whose job is to determine who's at fault.

Young urges drivers to avoid confrontations that could escalate into a situation that results in physical harm. If it's late at night, it's a good idea to make sure you're in a well-lit part of the parking lot where you can have the discussion.

Lowering accident odds

Experts say drivers can take certain steps to avoid parking lot accidents.

Cruising around the parking lot to find the best spot creates opportunities for accidents, Ben-Joseph says. "We often try to tell people that if you enter a parking lot and see a space, take that space immediately," he says.

Steering clear of particularly busy parking lots can also help reduce the chances of an accident. And drivers shouldn't be shy about gently tapping the horn to alert another driver who isn't paying attention, Goldberg says.

There's also the issue of distraction in parking lots. These days, people have a tendency to check their smartphones as soon as they get into their cars -- and sometimes they're still doing it when they're backing up. "That's a recipe for disaster," Goldberg says. "If you're going to check your handheld, do it while you're not moving."

And the same basic principles that are taught in driver's ed apply just as much in the parking lot as they do on the roadway.

"If you apply the rules of the road and yield in front of oncoming traffic, you're likely to avoid parking lot accidents," Goldberg says.