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NBC 10 I-Team: Epidemic of storefront crashes uncovered

An SUV crashed into the Dunes Club Wednesday, May 18, 2016. (Photo by NBC 10 New viewer Linda Mahoney)

It's a deadly problem that goes largely untracked: cars crashing into convenience stores, shops and restaurants.

The accidents lead to thousands of injuries each year and even deaths, including two recent fatalities in Massachusetts.

But the NBC 10 I-Team learned the solution can be simple.

At McKenna's Pub in Cranston, the building on Atwood Avenue has already been hit by cars twice this year. The owner, John DiRaimo, installed protective poles called bollards all around the structure several years ago. He believes the bollards prevented more extensive damage or injuries during the two recent crashes.

"If we didn't have them, the car would have went right through," DiRaimo told NBC 10.

The NBC 10 I-Team learned there are no laws requiring bollards or other protective barriers, even if a building has been hit by a car in the past. Critics said that's an accident waiting to happen.

"If there's nothing between that moving car and your storefront, guess where that car is going?" asked Mark Wright of the Storefront Safety Council.

Wright knows firsthand. He was walking out of a Maryland 7-Eleven store in 2008 when a driver ran right through the front door and into his body.

"She came bouncing up in the blink of an eye. Over the curb, over the bumper stop. Crashed into me," Wright said.

He survived, but sustained serious injuries to his leg. After the accident, he wondered how often cars crash into storefronts. He learned there's no official state or federal data on the problem, so he helped create the Storefront Safety Council to track reports of such crashes across the country.

"It wasn't just a stroke of lightning on that day for me," Wright said.

The NBC 10 I-Team checked our archives and found at least 10 storefront-type crashes in Southern New England just since last year, including the Dunes Club in Narragansett, the Powder Box hair salon in Cranston, and Mama Leone's Pizza in Newport.

Nationwide, the Storefront Safety Council said cars strike storefronts at least 60 times each day, injuring approximately 4,000 people and killing at least 500.

One of the victims was Massachusetts mother Kimmy Dubuque. She was grabbing a coffee at a Cumberland Farms store in Chicopee in 2010 when a car came through the front door, killing her instantly.

"You never, ever think about what could go wrong, until it does," Paul Weinberg, the attorney for Dubuque's family, said.

In February, a Massachusetts jury awarded the family a landmark $32 million in damages. The amount was reduced to $20 million by a judge this week, and the final award amount is still pending.

Weinberg said internal memos shown as evidence during the trial proved the company knew crashes were a problem at many of its 600-plus stores.

"On a regular basis for almost 20 years, their stores were being hit on average once a week," Weinberg said.

Cumberland Farms has since installed protective bollards outside its stores. But many other businesses with busy parking lots haven't taken that step.

What about the concrete bars at parking spaces? The Storefront Safety Council told NBC 10 they don't offer much protection, and can even do more harm than good. If a driver hits the gas, the bar can act as a ramp, launching the car airborne.

Wright said bollards are vital to saving lives and property, especially in locations where parking spaces face toward a storefront, sometimes called "nose in" parking.

"Your future is riding on every driver that rolls into one of those spots," he said. "That's not good odds."

Outside McKenna's Pub, DiRaimo said the bollards surrounding his building cost several thousand dollars to install, but were well worth the cost.

"Yes, it's worth it, especially on this curve," DiRaimo said of the building's location on busy Atwood Avenue.

A bill to require protective bollards passed the state legislature in California, but was later vetoed by the governor. A similar bill in the Massachusetts State House remains stalled in committee, meaning there are still no laws requiring property owners to protect storefronts.

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