Preventing “road rage” in your parking lot

It was an unusually busy day at a crowded New Jersey mall when a woman spotted an open parking space after circling the lot for the better part of a half-hour. As she stepped out of her car, another woman assaulted her, accusing the first woman of stealing her space. In the ensuing melee, the second woman nearly bit through the first woman’s finger.

We may chuckle at outrageous stories like this and laugh at social media videos that capture what happens when parking lot disputes escalate into battles. But is it funny when those things take place in one of your parking lots?

Have you ever stood near the exit of a church parking lot as a packed Sunday service lets out? The attendees may have been bathed with goodwill minutes earlier, but in the scramble to get to lunch, soccer practice, or in front of the TV before kickoff, they transform into combatants in a winner-takes-all contest to be the first out of the lot. The same people who were wishing each other peace moments ago snarl, snap, and yell.

 The same thing happens in workplaces when everyone leaves, and in the parent pick-up lanes at schools. Beyond the impact of escalating tempers, there’s also the potential for vehicle accidents, damage to the lot itself, and worst of all, pedestrians who are injured when they go unnoticed by drivers focused on making an escape. It’s also a problem when everyone competes for prime parking spaces at the start of the day or at crowded events.

 Psychologists who have studied parking lot road rage liken it to territorial disputes that are compounded by the anonymity many people feel while they’re behind the wheel. They’re centered on achieving an objective -- whether that’s finding a space or getting out quickly -- and when another driver interferes or delays them, they respond as though they’ve been threatened. If they misbehave, nobody will hold them accountable.

 Studies suggest those territorial disputes result in power struggles. Ever feel pressured to get out of a parking space so an impatient driver can move in? Penn State researchers discovered that when someone else was waiting for their space, drivers actually took more time to leave the space -- eleven seconds more, on average. And if the impatient driver honked? The departing drivers took even longer to leave. It’s a kind of “I’ll show you” mentality that often leads to yelling, obscene gestures, scratched paint and other vandalism, and the occasional bitten finger.

 Fortunately, there are steps you can take to reduce the level of anger in your parking lots. It begins with how your lot is designed and marked. Creating clear paths for entering, exiting, and moving around the lot can help. Placing highly visible signs, such as Stop, Yield, and One Way signs, can minimize the potential for simple misunderstandings that all too easily escalate into pitched battles. If your facility is located on a busy street and drivers waiting to make left turns create delays, you may even want to reconfigure the exits so drivers can only turn right.

 It’s also important to protect pedestrian traffic in your lot, because the more vehicles and pedestrians interact, the greater the potential for injury. Clearly marked walkways and crossways with signage giving pedestrians the right of way can help, as can strategically placed refuge areas or islands where pedestrians can wait safely for a break in the traffic flow.

 You can also designate employees or volunteers to stand in key locations and direct traffic to ensure everyone has a fair shot at heading out as quickly as reasonably possible. Be sure to give them reflective safety vests, and encourage them to smile and be friendly, because their attitude can create an example for the drivers and defuse short tempers caused by impatience. A little bit of extra attention to your parking lots can go a long way to ensuring the safety of those who visit your facilities … and might just make them be a little nicer to one another.