Last updated: August 2022
When you consider the dangers of driving, parking lots might not be high on your list of hazards, but every year, parking areas see tens of thousands of crashes that lead to hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries, according to the National Safety Council (NSC). To help you stay safe on future trips to the mall or grocery store, we’re looking at why parking lot crashes happen, parking lot right of way rules, how to deal with accidents in a parking lot, and more.
Parking Lot Crashes: Why are they so common?
As discussed above, parking lot crashes are much more common than many people think. Why is that the case? Well, it comes down to a few different factors.
- Distracted driving: If you look at NSC data, distracted driving activity is higher in parking lots than surface streets and highways in every category. In fact, more than 50% of the survey’s participants reported they would make a phone call, adjust their GPS, change music, text, set alerts/reminders, check emails, browse social media, and do personal grooming while driving in a parking lot.
- Confusion: Who has the right of way? Is it person in the lane of traffic or the person backing out? How do you drive if there are no clear signs to yield or stop? When people are confused, accidents can happen.
- Poor visibility: In busy parking lots, most drivers park head first, meaning when they go to leave, they’ll have to back out into traffic. When backing out in a busy parking lot, visibility is often obscured by other parked cars.
- The unexpected: Parking lots can be a little chaotic. Sometimes, an empty space you are eyeing has a rogue shopping cart occupying it or a child darts out in front of your vehicle. There are a number of reasons why someone might have to hit the brakes, reverse, or do something unplanned. Combined with the distractions we mentioned above, unexpected events can lead to accidents.
- Driving too fast: When you consider the general business of parking lots and the level of distracted driving in them, speed is a dangerous element to add. In most scenarios, driving at a speed of, say, 20 miles per hour wouldn’t be a big deal. But with pedestrians everywhere and cars potentially pulling out in front of you, speed (even a number you would normally consider to be quite slow) can cause serious problems.
As you can probably guess, limiting distractions, driving slowly, and preparing for the unexpected are great ways to lower your chances of being involved in a parking lot car accident. We’ll discuss other rules and tips below, but being prepared and paying full attention while you’re behind the wheel is paramount.
Parking Lot Right of Way Rules: Who gets to go first?
Quite frankly, parking lots can be confusing? Am I supposed to let you back out, or do you yield to me? What if I would have hit that person who just jumped out in front of my moving vehicle? Before we break down a few different what-if scenarios, here are some terms to know.
- Parking space or parking spot: The area in which you park your car.
- Parking lane or feeder lane: The lane of traffic running between parked cars
- Main lane, thoroughfare lane, or through lane: The primary lane running through or around the perimeter of the parking area. It often connects to the main road or access road to get into the parking lot.
If you are exiting a parking space:
If you are pulling out of a parking space, wait until the coast is clear. Generally speaking, if you are joining moving traffic after being parked, you should yield to other drivers, according to SafeMotorist.com. Sometimes a driver in the feeder lane may yield the right of way to you. If so, wave to thank them and back up carefully. You might be able to repay their kindness by giving them your now-vacant parking spot.
If you are driving in a parking lane:
When driving in a parking lane, parked cars should be watching out for you before backing out. But sometimes drivers don’t pay attention or their vision is blocked by another parked vehicle. Be prepared to stop in case a car suddenly starts to enter the parking lane. It’s better to yield the right of way than deal with the inconvenience of a car accident.
If you are trying to enter the through lane:
People driving in the primary lanes running through or around the parking lot generally have the right of way, according to Nolo. So, if you are trying to turn out of a parking lane into a through (or thoroughfare) lane, yield until it’s safe to make your turn.
If there are signs or signals present:
Nolo also notes that sometimes a traffic sign will overrule general wisdom. For example, just because you’re in the through lane, you don’t have the right to ignore a yield or stop sign that allows people in the parking lane to turn ahead of you. Traffic signs and signals serve as a guide for how to drive, and they should always be followed to avoid accidents.
If you have any doubts:
If you’re unsure of what to do, don’t be afraid to yield. For example, if you arrive at an intersection at the same time as another driver and neither of you are sure who should go, attempt to make eye contact and offer the right of way. SafeMotorist.com recommends being courteous and conscientious to avoid crashes.
Parking Lot Speed Limits
Typically, parking lots will have posted speed limits. If you see any speed limit signs, make sure to follow them to avoid any tickets and to keep everyone safe. However, if you don’t notice any posted speed limits, the National Motorists Association recommends staying below 15 miles per hour at all times. With the possibility of pedestrians crossing your path or a car backing out in front of you, driving slowly is one of the best ways to avoid an accident in a parking lot. The slower you’re driving, the quicker you can come to stop if necessary.
What to Do If You’re Involved in a Parking Lot Accident
Even if you’re careful, a car accident can happen to anyone, and parking lots aren’t an exception. If you’re ever involved in a parking lot accident, most of the steps you need to take are similar to what you should do after any other car accident.
- Check for injuries and call 911 if necessary. Even a small fender bender can cause injuries, so make sure everyone at the scene of the accident is okay.
- Call the police: If you call 911, the police are probably on the way. But even if there are no injuries and the vehicle damage is minor, you will probably still want to get a police report to document what happened. A police report provides written documentation of what happened and can help determine fault if it specifies things like who ran a stop sign or who didn’t yield when they were supposed to. Nolo notes that if your accident is very minor and without injuries, police might take a while to respond to the scene or instruct you just to exchange information.
- Exchange information & document the scene: While you’re waiting for the police to arrive (or if they told you they weren’t coming), you’ll want to get all relevant information from the other driver. This includes their full name, address, contact number(s), insurance information, and make/model/year/license plate of vehicle. If there are witnesses at the scene, make sure to get their contact information. In addition to collecting information, use your phone’s camera to document the scene and any damage to the vehicles involved. All of this will be useful as you prepare to file an insurance claim.
- Report the accident to your insurance company: If the accident is small, and there are no injuries at the scene, you might be tempted to let the incident go by without telling your insurance company. But Nolo notes this is a bad idea because if the other driver finds damage to their car at a later date or does have an injury, they might file a claim, blindsiding you and your insurer. It’s probably better to risk a small rate increase now than potentially be denied financial help from your insurer later.
Whether you were backing out of a parking space and got hit or if you rear-ended someone who slammed on their brakes, it’s always best to follow the proper steps to report the accident and document what happened, no matter who is at-fault for the collision.
General Parking Lot Safety Tips
Looking for some practical ways you can stay safe while navigating parking lots? Here are some helpful pointers.
- Drive slowly at all times.
- Look for parking options that will allow you to drive forward to leave, increasing your visibility.
- Use your turn signals.
- Consider parking in a less crowded part of the lot, even if it means a longer walk.
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Looking for other safe-driving tips? Check out these articles!
- Do’s & Don’ts: Tips for Safely Passing a Semi-Truck
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- How to Park on a Hill (with GIFs)
- How to Drive in Construction Zones, School Zones & Funeral Processions