Crash Into Me: ElectionlineWeekly on Phenomenon of Cars Into Polling Places

[Image courtesy WDAM via electionline]

My friend and colleague Mindy Moretti has been collecting news stories for electionline.org for a long time – and over the years, she’s noticed one kind of story that seems to pop up almost every Election Day: a car crashing into a polling place. She writes about it for the latest electionlineWeekly:

Michael Winn had seen a lot of unexpected things at polling places on Election Day in his time as an elections administrator.

Flooding, freezes, power outages, gas leaks, etc. And he thought he’d just about seen/heard it all until this spring, when conducting his first election as the director of elections in Harris County, Texas, a car came crashing through the double glass doors at an early voting location.

While this was a first for Winn, it’s oddly not all that uncommon. Just this year alone there are have been reports of cars crashing into polling places in Connecticut, Mississippi, and New Jersey. It’s something electionline has been anecdotally following for years and the bigger surprise is when it doesn’t happen on an election day than when it does.

Fortunately, in many cases, thanks to robust emergency contingency plans, voting is able to continue as was the case in Harris County.

The Harris County polling place was immediately shut down so damage could be assessed and the cause of the accident could be determined — in this case a senior citizen hitting the wrong pedal instead of something more insidious.

“We were in constant communication with law enforcement,” Winn said. “And our voter outreach team were tweeting and on social media immediately. They jumped into action and diverted voters to other locations and we were able to come back within 30 mins.”

No one was hurt although according to Winn the car came within inches of a poll worker who was serving as a greeter at the polling location. She refused treatment for some minor cuts she received while dodging out of the way of the oncoming car and continued with her election duties.

So why does this seem to be such a recurring problem on voting days? No one really knows, but Jane Terry, senior director of Government Affairs for the National Safety Council noted that tens of thousands of crashes occur in parking lots and garage structures annually, resulting in hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries.

“The parking areas for precincts can be particularly dangerous, as many people will be navigating them for the first time on Election Day,” Terry said. “Drivers should make sure they drive slowly in parking areas, use directional signals and avoid cutting across lots. They should also obey stop signs and no-parking signs, and always be on the lookout for pedestrians, particularly when backing up. Lastly, to avoid the chance of road rage on Election Day, drivers should keep their political opinions to themselves.”

Interestingly enough there have been several studies done about traffic fatalities and presidential election days. In 2008, Donald Redelmeier at the University of Iowa found that the average election leads to a 19 percent increase in the risk of a fatal crash during the hours of polling. This equaled about 24 people per election and was consistent across different ages and locations; and according to the author, greatly exceeded the risk on New Year’s Eve, Super Bowl Sunday. However a 2015 reanalysis of Redelmeier’s work suggests that presidential election days are no more dangerous than your average Tuesday.

Whether or not there are more traffic fatalities on election days or more drivers crash their cars into buildings on Election Day, safety and design experts agree that there are some things both elections officials and voters can do to minimize the risk.

“Election officials can reinforce safe driving behaviors by sharing relevant safety messages in the materials they distribute and online. Many of these messages are common sense: Buckle up in every seating position on every trip. Adhere to the speed limit. Don’t drive impaired, which includes driving fatigued – something early-morning voters should be particularly mindful of. In addition, voting parents should never leave their children alone in the car when they go to cast their ballot,” said Terry,

Although elections officials don’t have control over how a facility that’s used as a polling place is structured, there are some things they could do with signage and temporary design to help.

“Thinking about the allowable perimeter outside which campaigning can happen as a safety and security perimeter is one thought I had about this,” said Dana Chisnell of the Center for Civic Design. “That would mean that cars wouldn’t be allowed, either, except for accessibility reasons. But accidents are going to happen. So, building the scenario into your emergency preparedness training makes sense.”

Chisnell recommended that officials check out Vol. 08 of Field Guides to Ensuring Voter Intent which is all about guiding voters through the polling place and the work that the City of Minneapolis did with the Minneapolis College of Art and Design to create fresh polling place signs.

And back in Harris County, what, if anything, have Winn and his team learned from the incident?

“We didn’t make any changes to our emergency plan, but we did look at the buildings we’re using,” Winn said. “Maybe try to avoid using sites with glass fronts and use ones that have some sort of barrier in front. We have not yet analyzed the impact that vote at home systems may have on reducing insurance rates but this may be a good research initiative..”

And of course there may be one sure way to avoid an Election Day polling place mishap.

“We have not yet analyzed the impact that vote at home systems may have on reducing insurance rates but this may be a good research initiative,” said Amber McReynolds, executive director Vote at Home Institute & Coalition.

Thanks to Mindy for pulling this story together; while the phenomenon has been a source of amusement to the two of us through the years, the safety of voters, pollworkers and drivers is serious business – and everyone with a polling place close to vehicle traffic needs to be more aware of the possibility of an accidental drive-thru on Election Day. Please be careful out there, everyone – and stay tuned …

[NOTE and hat tip to local resilience: the Lamar Park, MS polling place in the photo above will be back in action for a runoff  later this month after repairs to the damage from the accident during last week’s primary.]

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