Designing Commercial Parking Lots: It’s All About Safety

Parking lots are rife with danger, as both drivers and pedestrians irresponsibly multitask when they should be paying attention to each other.

One would imagine the most dangerous places for motor vehicles are in fast moving traffic, particularly on expressways and interstate highways. While speed certainly carries its own concerns for safety, the slower moving traffic found in commercial parking lots is actually riddled with risk. The National Safety Council (NSC) reports that approximately 500 people die each year in American parking lots. This fact would be no surprise to a big city asphalt contractor.

How can that be? It has to do with a mix of hazards: a mix of pedestrians and moving vehicles, blind spots with lots of corners, and that modern scourge of driver distraction from cell phones as they text, talk and set destinations on their GPS systems while embarking on their next errand. 

This creates liability worries for retailers and owners of those properties, where a badly designed parking lot can shoulder the blame in lawsuits and lost business. It also is a worry to employers, as parking lots on company property are legally – as defined by OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration – the responsibility of the company. According to Safety And Health Magazine, a publication of NSC, “If an employee has a recordable injury during work hours in the company parking area – whether driving, exiting, or entering a vehicle or walking – the incident is considered work-related.”

That warning offers an outline for what any parking lot contractor and designer needs to heed when putting in a new or repaving an existing parking lot:

Entry/exiting the lot: The local planning authorities will study this carefully and determine where entrances and exits go. These are starting points for how all other traffic flow is managed within the lot. 

Driving in the lot: Assuming the layout of the lot is done according to state, county or city standards, the most useful means of eliminating driver confusion is adequate signage both at eye level and painted onto the pavement. Wayfinding (for entry and exit) are essential, as are stop and yield signs, markings for pedestrian crossings (an aid to drivers and walkers), and clear ADA-approved signs for designated handicap and van-accessible parking spaces. In some cases speed limit signs are necessary.

Discharge of passengers: The use of the lot determines space size – such as with grocery stores where walking areas double as places for shopping carts – as does the need for pedestrian drop off areas. In the case of handicapped accommodations, the space size should accommodate a van with an unloading area. If there are changes in elevation – steps, curbs and steep slopes – access ramps need to be provided in pedestrian areas.

Pedestrians in the lot: Two factors need accounting for, one being the person who is unfamiliar with the property and looking for their destination (signage required). The second is the phone-distracted pedestrian who isn’t paying attention to steps, pavement breaks (potholes), and moving vehicles; markings and texture changes on pavement, plus vehicular speed reduction tactics, are the best defense.  

Also, if far corners of the lot are secluded and possibly obscured with vegetation, an emergency call station is recommended.

It bears mentioning that pavement quality is essential for safety. Vehicles that swerve to avoid potholes and standing water on pavement that isn’t properly drained create a different kind of hazard that serves no one.