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    Wednesday, August 17, 2022

    When outdoor dining turns tragic

    One urban designer in San Francisco said the close proximity of sidewalk cafes to traffic is the proverbial “accident waiting to happen.” But accidents are already happening.

    A tractor-trailer veered into the patio at Buon Appetito restaurant on Route 2 in North Stonington Thursday morning. Fortunately, it was too early for anyone to be dining at the outdoor tables.

    Patrons eating outside a clam shack in Warwick, R.I., were not so lucky on Friday, when a driver in the parking lot accidentally hit the accelerator. A 66-year-old woman was killed and her husband hospitalized in stable condition.

    Since the pandemic, the number of outdoor dining areas has increased exponentially. Always a popular option in the summer, patio dining has become a year-round feature with the use of gas heaters.

    But also on the increase are vehicle-diner accidents.

    In Miami in February, one person was killed and six injured when a woman trying to parallel park plowed into outdoor tables. In March, two people were killed and 11 people injured by an out-of-control car that careened into a Greek restaurant's outdoor tables in northwest Washington, D.C.

    One urban designer in San Francisco said the close proximity of sidewalk cafes to traffic is the proverbial “accident waiting to happen.”

    But the accidents already are happening. While it's too soon to determine how many of these collisions are pandemic-related – after all, some restaurants had outdoor dining long before Covid – it's safe to say that the proliferation of patio tables has increased the risk.

    It's not difficult to explain why. In cities, outdoor cafes have been set up on sidewalks, mere inches from passing traffic. In rural areas these patios are often adjacent to busy roads like Route 2.

    People like to eat outdoors, and the practice has been a healthy alternative during the pandemic. No one would suggest eliminating outdoor dining altogether.

    Setbacks and arbor-like screening are not enough to stop an out-of-control vehicle. But steps can be taken to protect diners and wait staff from a tragedy.

    You can't install a propane tank without protective columns – because a vehicle backing into one could set off a conflagration. Why not require the same to protect outdoor diners?

    Called bollards, these columns also are used in front of gas meters, fire hydrants and other sensitive infrastructure. You also find them between the parking lots and sidewalks of big-box stores, where they are designed to protect pedestrians.

    Insurers advise restaurant owners to take reasonable steps to protect their patrons, to lessen what is known as “premises liability.” But aside from business interests, every restaurant owner should be concerned about the safety of their patrons and staff.

    With outdoor dining here to stay, restaurant owners should seriously consider installing bollards to make their diners safer. The columns are an affordable, effective barrier between traffic and diners. Bottom line: They can save lives.

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