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Saturday, June 10, 2023
June 10, 2023

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How often do cars crash into buildings in Seattle? Way more than you think


While Kevin Rivera was jogging north of Green Lake in November, a medium-duty truck barreled past him, apparently on its way to beat a red light. As the vehicle entered the intersection, the driver seemed to lose control on the wet pavement, Rivera said. The truck swiped several parked cars before veering off the street and into the front wall of a nearby home.

Rivera, a nursing student, ran into the house on Wallingford Avenue North and saw the cab of the truck fully inside, crushed against the home’s fireplace. The driver was pinned in his seat, blood dripping down his face, while the passenger next to him tried to wrest him free. Rivera scanned the inside of the home and saw no one was there. He tried to communicate with the driver and passenger, but they only spoke Russian. He called 911.

Last year, a car or truck crashed into a building in Seattle on average every 3 1/2 days — more than 100 times. That was the most in a single year since at least 2012, according to Seattle Fire Department records provided through a public disclosure request.

Building crashes represent only a fraction of the city’s overall traffic collisions, which number in the thousands each year. But their suddenness and potential for destruction to people and structures mean each incident brings with it an outsized feeling of unease — a sense that the danger of the city’s streets may not be confined to the city’s streets.

Many end in injury and some, like a 2017 crash near Lake City, are deadly. Damage to buildings and homes can easily run into the tens of thousands of dollars and sideline businesses for months.

Yet, despite plentiful news coverage of so many dramatic crashes, their frequency is poorly tracked.

According to a Seattle Times review of fire department records, combined with those kept by a security contractor based in Colorado Springs who tracks building crashes, vehicles have struck buildings nearly 700 times in the city since 2012. That is likely an undercount: Crashes that did not elicit a fire department response or news coverage aren’t included. For example, a Seattle Times reporter witnessed a car reverse into an apartment building near Pike Place Market last summer, but the incident does not show up in any records.

At 105 collisions, 2022 saw the most crashes for any year of the past 10. The high-water mark comes at the same time as the state sees a record number of deaths on the road, as speeding and impairment continue to climb and enforcement remains well-below 2019 levels. Some crashes are more serious than others — one, into Jays Cleaners in North Seattle, involved a slow-moving vehicle bumping into the business; another smashed the entire front of an 82-year-old auto repair shop on Roosevelt Way — but each was significant enough to elicit a fire department response.

The house in Wallingford remains boarded up, said Rivera, who lives nearby. The owners did not respond to phone calls for comment. There have been no arrests, according to a Seattle Police Department spokesperson.

As a nursing student, Rivera tries to remain steady even in harrowing situations. Still, he said, “It was intense.”

One man tracks them

To find any official accounting of how often cars crash into buildings in the United States, you have to go back to 1973, when a report for the Department of Housing and Urban Development pegged the number at somewhere between 20,000 and 40,000 times a year.

But the report was a one-off and a more recent count from the federal government is nowhere to be found.

That angers Rob Reiter. After 9/11, Reiter’s job as a security consultant was to protect airports, courthouses, stadiums and other crowded and public spaces from terrorists who might use a car as a weapon. His main tool was the simple bollard — a metal post strong enough to stop a vehicle.

But in his years of work, no terrorists ever ran into his barriers. “Mostly it’s drunks, or people who are lost or whatever,” he said.

Beginning in 2007, Reiter set about documenting as many crashes into buildings as he could, via news reports and government records. His counts hover around 40,000 a year. Absent any other sources on crashes — including from national sources such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration — his data is frequently cited by insurance groups and news articles and he is contacted by attorneys representing people injured in such collisions.

“It’s just a completely invisible problem,” Reiter said. “It just bothers me that there is this complete lack of accountability and it bothers me that this is such a preventable issue.”

The wreckage

Roughly a third of the building crashes in Seattle last year involved vehicles running into businesses. In March, a car was T-boned on Eastlake Avenue, lost control and plowed through the entrance of Lo-Fi Seattle, the popular venue for dancing to soul and ‘90s music. The destruction temporarily closed the front part of the club, and the operators started a GoFundMe page.

In May, a car drove through the windows of Coastal Kitchen, the decades-old Capitol Hill restaurant, during business hours while customers were seated. No one was hurt, but the car totaled the façade and ran into a support pillar, requiring work to support the building’s structural integrity. The restaurant closed for six months to rebuild and rebrand, said Robyn Nielsen, marketing manager.

In July, Peter Kenny, owner and operator of Larson’s Auto Repair on Roosevelt Way, was in his shop when it felt like a bomb went off. When the dust settled, literally, he saw a car had hurtled off Roosevelt and taken out the whole front of his shop. He happened to be standing behind a pillar when it happened and saw glass and debris had just missed him to either side. He’s still struggling with the insurance company and says he’s lost between $15,000 and $25,000 in income since the crash.

Another third of 2022’s crashes rammed into residences — either single-family homes or apartment buildings.

Charlie Paige heard a “horrible screech of the brakes” late one night after getting home from a trip. He went outside his Phinney Ridge home and saw a car had driven through a fence and into an apartment building. He called 911 and the fire department issued a “Red4” code, according to records, meaning the nearest engine and ladder trucks should respond immediately. All three people in the car were taken to the hospital.

Paige lives near the intersection of Phinney Avenue North and North 50th Street, where there’s a hitch in the road after a long and straight stretch from both directions. From his home office, Paige said, he hears people honking two to three times a day.

“It’s a nightmare of a situation,” he said of the intersection.

The rest of the collisions don’t fall into neat categories: a car driving into the downtown federal building; a man in crisis causing a structure fire in Georgetown; an attempted robbery; and more.

The legal stakes

Because building crashes involve public roads and, often, private property, the question of liability can be tricky. Chris Davis, an attorney in Seattle, takes on three to four clients a year who’ve been injured in a building crash, usually people inside who’ve been hit.

“They’re hard cases legally unless you can show some kind of prior knowledge” that there was a risk, he said.

Davis often looks to the landowner and whether they should have known there was a risk and done something to prevent it — for instance, by placing bollards or barriers in front of the entrance. He also looks at road layout and whether there’s a “design flaw in the way that traffic is directed toward the building.”

7-Eleven last week agreed to pay $91 million to settle a case involving a man who’d been hit outside a Chicago store. Data disclosed in the case showed 7-Eleven stores are hit by a car on average once a day. The man’s lawyers argued the company knew about the risks to customers but didn’t do enough to keep them safe.

As for the drivers, repercussions are generally minor — a fine or infraction — if there are any at all, Davis said. To bring criminal charges, attorneys would have to show the behavior was egregious, like driving drunk, and not simply negligent, he said.

Most building crashes in Seattle in 2022 — 59%, according to The Seattle Times review — occurred on principal arterials, which tend to be long, straight and wide, with cars that frequently speed, and are also populated with businesses and homes. There were eight crashes on Aurora, four on Rainier Avenue South, three on Northeast 65th Street and two on Greenwood Avenue North.

In addition to the destruction at Larson’s, Roosevelt has had two other similar crashes. That’s no surprise to Kenny, who’s had a front-row seat to how people drive when given a straight stretch of road.

“People sure are driving too fast down this street,” he said.

That 59% portion mirrors the broader dangers of arterials: In 2020, 60.4% of all pedestrian deaths in the U.S. occurred on non-interstate thoroughfares like these, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association.

In Seattle, that number is much higher: 93% of pedestrian fatalities occurred on arterials in the last three years.

“It’s certainly no coincidence that most of these are happening on non-interstate arterials,” said Steve Davis, assistant vice president of transportation strategy with Smart Growth America.

In 2019, the Seattle Department of Transportation began lowering speed limits on all city arterials to 25 mph. It’s part of a larger effort to “calm” these streets by redesigning them to discourage speeding — narrowing or eliminating lanes, adding more stoplights, inserting medians. Seattle is developing next steps for arterials, but SDOT spokesperson Ethan Bergerson said the department is not ready to release details.

“If you don’t change the design, lowering the speed limit is going to have a diminished return,” said Davis of Smart Growth America.

The road ahead

With almost no national data, it’s nearly impossible to compare Seattle’s statistics with similar locations or to determine whether 2022 was destructive everywhere or just here. Traffic deaths are up nationwide, including in Seattle, but it’s unclear how much correlation exists between total fatalities and building crashes.

Seattle’s new director of transportation, Gregg Spotts, has promised a “top to bottom” review of the city’s policies for preventing injury or death on the roads.

Reiter sees it as a solvable problem, through preventive measure like installing protective equipment and reorienting streets and buildings. Waiting on drivers to slow down by choice won’t work.

“We have not in 100-and-some-odd years of driving figured out how to change driver behavior,” he said. “I don’t think we’re going to figure that out anytime soon.”