Bollards may be on the menu after Ireland’s Four Courts crash

Ireland’s Four Courts boarded up on 9/15/22 (staff photo)

The following article was supported by the ARLnow Press Club. Join today to help us do more in-depth local reporting.

Storefront safety is now top-of-mind for Ireland’s Four Courts after a rideshare driver plowed into the pub and sparked a fire, seriously injuring several people.

While those injured were inside the restaurant, safety advocates say this crash demonstrates why many have concerns about outdoor dining and nightlife, as well as traffic configurations that rely on everyone driving perfectly. For Four Courts, the crash is a chance to rebuild with a greater focus on safety.

“Since the accident, storefront and patio safety is most definitely our highest priority as we plan our reopening,” Managing Partner Dave Cahill said. “I think installing safety bollards in the front of business locations like ours would eliminate the risk of vehicles crashing into buildings and pedestrians.”

Arlington County is more than a year into an initiative to eliminate traffic fatalities and serious injuries. But because storefront crashes like this one are so rare, they aren’t the focus of Vision Zero efforts, according to the county. Instead, this initiative to eliminate traffic serious injuries and fatalities focuses on locations within Arlington’s High Injury Network.

“These types of crashes are often high-profile, but are uncommon,” says Dept. of Environmental Services spokeswoman Katie O’Brien.

Since 2017, 0.25% of total critical crashes, or 32 out of 13,035, involved a driver hitting a building. Two of these crashes — excluding the Courthouse crash — involved a visible, but not severe, injury, while the remainder resulted in property damage only.

Still, it has restaurateur David Guas, of Bayou Bakery, who watched the crash happen, thinking more about safety as well.

“Witnessing it first hand, I had a flash in the pan thought, ‘someone could’ve come down N. Veitch and into Bayou,'” he said. “Technically, it could happen, especially if this is a freak medical emergency.”

Police announced last month that the rideshare driver who drove straight in to the long-time pub likely suffered a medical emergency and will not face charges.

Risk factors

There are a lot of factors that put people at risk near storefronts, according to Storefront Safety Council cofounder Rob Reiter.

“Outdoor dining is inherently more risky,” says Reiter. “Speeds are up everywhere and… you’re always one drunk away from someone accelerating into a crowd.”

Nationally, based on statistics the council has compiled from news reports, court records and studies, the most common reasons are operator error and pedal confusion, followed by drunk driving.

Storefront crash causes (via Storefront Safety Council)

In Arlington, of the serious crashes into a building, almost 30% involved a drunk driver, O’Brien said.

A driver suffering a “medical event” in a crash, as is believed to have happened with Four Courts, is fairly common, Reiter says. Council data indicate medical events make up 9% of storefront crashes.

The bigger issue here, Reiter said, is that the pub sits at a “T” intersection.

These are common in Arlington, in areas of low speed limits and multiple traffic signals and traffic signs, O’Brien said. The intersection ending in Ireland’s Four Courts “was and is being looked at for redesign, as is standard,” she added.

Another hairy traffic configuration is when perpendicular parking abuts the entrance to a store, said another Storefront Safety Council cofounder, Mark Wright, who was hit 14 years ago by a woman who rolled through a parking spot and into the 7-Eleven he was exiting.

While it is convenient, Wright said, “it’s a very risky parking arrangement and obviously parking is a critical component of any thriving, successful shopping center.”

Per Storefront Safety Council data, 23% of crashes involved retail stores and 19% involved restaurants.

Potential improvements 

The Storefront Safety Council says temporary planter barriers — which have sprung up during the pandemic as restaurants have added impromptu outdoor seating — are ineffective, as are bumper wheel stops, which can launch an accelerating vehicle up and out of the spot rather than stop the car.

Rather, the most effective solutions are “pedestrian permeable” barriers — such as bollards, sturdy brick planters or jersey barriers — in between pedestrians and vehicles. People on foot can pass between these, but they stop cars.

“The only thing that really, really works is to put in the right kind of barriers in between pedestrians and vehicles,” Wright said.

He adds that bollards are the “No. 1 solution,” such as the “tall, robust, sturdy white bollards” around Wawa stores that also work as a design element. He also likes these industrial brick planter-walls at a shopping center in Rockville, Maryland.

Brick planters in a shopping center in Rockville, Maryland (via Google Maps)

State and local transportation officials previously identified the Courthouse intersection for pedestrian safety improvements, O’Brien said, in conjunction with two redevelopment projects: the Wendy’s lot and Landmark Block.

“Arlington saw the redevelopment activities around the intersection as an opportunity to make pedestrian improvements as part of the redevelopment,” she said.

“The VDOT identification did not involve incidents in which vehicles left the roadway, of which we are not aware of any,” she said. “The current plans developed in conjunction with redevelopment include improvements that will ‘tighten’ the intersection to make crossings shorter and provide more pedestrian space.”

Bicyclists will have separated, distinguished riding areas at this intersection, reducing potential interactions with vehicles, she added.

Wright cautioned against efforts to improve safety becoming “siloed.” He suggested Vision Zero task forces should have representatives from the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, for instance.

“One political suggestion would be to really engage the business community, including property owners, in a very serious and ongoing dialogue that focuses on a win-win solution,” he said. “If the county was able to create an effort that broke up that siloed mentality regarding outdoor dining areas, the results of that conversation would be very interesting.”

Guas says he’d welcome a partnership on storefront safety. He cautioned the county against leaving it up to businesses to solve these issues, given their rarity.

“They would definitely have to bring to us some options,” he said.

Cahill said Ireland’s Four Courts looks forward to working with the county and other local businesses to implement new safety measures. As for what’s next for the pub, Cahill says work could get started soon now that the investigations have wrapped up.

“We are now working with engineers to determine if any structural damage was done to the building,” he said. “We are hoping to start demo and the rebuilding process next month.”