By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Until 12 years ago, Potomac resident Robert Weinstock had never considered walking across a parking lot a particularly dangerous thing to do.
But in 1997, Weinstock's 73-year-old aunt, Florence Sokol, was hit by a sport-utility vehicle as she walked through a post office parking lot in Florida on her way to mail a birthday gift to her son. Sokol, an avid athlete who was in excellent health, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and was declared brain-dead. Her family took her off life support soon afterward.
"People think of the main risk in parking lots as fender benders," Weinstock said. "We don't think of it as a place where lives are at stake, but they can be."
Weinstock's home county plans to address that risk. In response to data being released Thursday that show that about 22 percent of Montgomery County's pedestrian accidents occur in parking lots, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) is launching a campaign to focus on parking lot safety.
"Not focusing on this issue has been a glaring omission," Leggett said. "We concentrate so much on the roads and major intersections that we tend to forget what's happening in the parking lots, and we need to bring the number of collisions down."
Pedestrian safety has been a major focus in Montgomery since December 2007, when Leggett announced a strategic plan on the topic. The county spends more than $30 million a year on pedestrian safety initiatives, including $5 million in revenue from speed-camera fines that is dedicated to safety campaigns.
"We've become a lot more data-oriented so we can use our limited resources to focus on the areas that have the most collisions," said Esther Bowring, the county's public information officer and coordinator of the latest campaign.
The focus on parking lots began when county officials were reviewing overall pedestrian accident rates this year. The county had never tracked parking lot accidents, but a traffic engineer noticed a particularly high rate of incidents of senior citizens being struck by vehicles along Rockville Pike. When he pulled the police reports, he noticed that many of the victims had not been hit on streets but in parking lots at the many shopping centers in the area.
Employees calculated the numbers and were surprised by the frequency of parking lot accidents. Of the 1,496 pedestrians struck between January 2006 and June 2009, 324 had been hit in parking lots.
"Traffic engineers know these are not safe locations, but there's been very little work done to actually do something about it," said Jeff Dunckel, Montgomery's pedestrian safety coordinator.
Bowring said that such accidents tend to increase after daylight saving time ends because residents are more likely to be running errands in the dark (daylight saving time ends this weekend). And as retail centers become crowded with holiday shoppers, the risks increase further, she said.
Police in Fairfax and Prince George's counties and the District said they do not track pedestrian accidents in parking lots. Michael Farrell, a transportation planner who works with the Street Smart pedestrian safety program of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, said that the group has never focused on parking lot safety, in part because it is difficult to obtain reliable data.
"At the regional level, parking lot safety, except for the general reminders to look out and look both ways, goes a little bit under our radar," Farrell said. "In terms of messaging, we need to be directed to where the biggest problem is, which is still on the roads."
But Bowring and Dunckel said the Montgomery data show that parking lots represent a significant danger to pedestrians, especially senior citizens. Many of the accidents occur when drivers backing out of parking spaces fail to see pedestrians, Bowring said.
At Thursday's kickoff event, county officials will pass out posters and cards imploring people to be cautious in parking lots. The goal is to encourage people to think of a parking lot as a road with danger potentially coming from all sides, Bowring said.
"Both drivers and pedestrians could be more alert," Bowring said. "Drivers need to make sure nobody is behind them when they start to back out, but pedestrians shouldn't assume that drivers see them and walk behind a vehicle that is backing out."
The next step is to form a working group to study engineering solutions to parking lot hazards, Dunckel said. One possibility, he said, is to create dedicated pedestrian paths through parking lots, away from cars.
For Weinstock, the county's focus is welcome.
"This is an area where government can make a significant contribution in a way that's not terribly costly," he said. "I'm delighted."