Will storefront crash barriers protect you?

New test determines if barriers will hold up to low-speed crashes

By Garrett Brnger - Reporter

SAN ANTONIO - A slip of the pedal can turn deadly when it leads to cars crashing through storefronts.

"Ultimately, when you're sitting on the other side of the wall, you don't even know it's coming," said Michael Brackin, an associate transportation researcher at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI).

The causes of the crashes vary. It might be driver inattention, pedal use error or impaired driving, but the end result is the same. A vehicle crashes into a building unless there's something to protect it and customers.

Some stores install barriers like bollards (large poles) to stop wayward cars from crashing through their storefront. But until recently, there hasn't been a standard for how strong these barriers or their foundations need to be to stop a crash for various speeds up to 30 mph.

In Texas, 21 people died between 2010 and 2014 from crashes into buildings, according to federal data. The statistics do not indicate whether the buildings are commercial, residential or something else.

The problem isn't just Texas. The Storefront Safety Council tracks crashes into commercial buildings nationwide and estimates 60 happen every day. The crashes injure up to 4,000 and kill up to 500 people every year.

"The damage is everything from a couple of cracked window panes to fatal accidents with tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage," said the council's co-founder, Rob Reiter.

One of those fatal crashes happened in Houston last fall. A young mother died after a 74-year-old woman drove an SUV into an H-E-B grocery store.

"As I mashed the brake, the car started, you know, going faster and it just backed up on in the store," the driver Dorothy Barnes said after the accident. "I would never do anything like that. I have no reason to hurt anyone. I'm a Christian lady, an old lady, and it's just something that happened."

The victim's family named H-E-B in a lawsuit over the crash. They claim the bollards by the entrance were "deficiently built, poorly maintained, poorly designed and/or improperly installed."

Citing pending litigation, H-E-B declined to comment on the case, but the company denies the claims in court filings.

Strong bollards and barriers can stop cars from hitting buildings or customers, but Reiter said there are no national or state requirements to put them up in front of stores.

And until recently, there were no standards for what makes a storefront barrier strong enough for low-speed crashes.

"Right now, any local welding shop and any pipe supplier can sell product, and there's absolutely no standards whatsoever," said Mike Schram, CEO of Traffic Guard Direct, a company that makes bollards.

But in November 2014, ASTM International approved a new manufacturing standard. It tests how well a barrier stands up to a crash with a 5,000-pound vehicle traveling at various speeds up to 30 mph.

More than a year later on a windy, January day, Traffic Guard Direct was the first to test its bollards against the new standard. As a reusable test vehicle, called a "bogey," modeled after a Dodge pickup, rolled down the TTI test track, both TTI researchers and Traffic Guard executives waited anxiously to see how the bollards fared.

The bollards stood strong three times in different foundations as the bogey crashed into them at 10 mph. The final test at 30 mph was the real challenge.

That crash kicked up part of the foundation and knocked back the bollard by more than a foot -- the mark for a "P1" penetration rating. However, the bollard remained in the ground and earned a "P2" penetration rating.

Had anyone been behind it, they would have survived.

The new standard may help determine not just how strong a barrier should be, but the future of their use. Reiter and Brackin believe having a standard for what makes an acceptable storefront barrier could spur the creation of more ordinances, codes and laws requiring their use.

So no matter where a slip of the foot might take a car, a bollard or barrier would be there to stop it.

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