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Backing up in parking spaces is much safer. Why don’t we do it?

Each year, some 300 people are killed and 18,000 are injured by backing up drivers, usually in driveways or parking lots.

There is a simple way to avoid many of these accidents: we could back up in the parking space so that we don’t have to back up.

Note that I am talking about spaces in lots and garages that are perpendicular to the wall or perimeter. When it comes to parallel parking for a space on the street, Everybody returns, except for morons like George’s nemesis in this classic Seinfeld bit.

In a parking lot, the AAA thinks we should back down, recommending that “drivers back up in parking spaces whenever possible, except where the law or parking restrictions prohibit it.”

Tom Vanderbilt, author of the classic book Traffic, thinks, too much. In the same way Talking about car. Here’s how host Ray Magliozzi concisely explained the dangers of backing up a space: “As the butt of your car sticks out into traffic, you can’t see if there are any cars coming, because your view is blocked by the passenger compartments of the cars. or SUVs parked next to you.

And yet, most of us don’t.

It is cumbersome to get out of a space, that’s for sure. But it would seem many more difficult to move back in. In the first scenario, you step back into the universe, with all the margin of error that entails. In the other, you retreat into a ruthless rectangle.

In 1990, in their monograph Car park (designed to present “the best of contemporary North American practice in the planning, design and operation of parking spaces”), transportation engineers Robert Weant and Herbert Levinson only addressed the issue passing. Rear parking, they said, “is not generally practiced or encouraged.”

Things have changed in a quarter of a century. Recently in the parking lot I use on the campus of my employer, the University of Delaware, I counted 11 of 43 cars parked on the perimeter of the parking lot facing the front. (I limited my calculation to the perimeter because in the double rows in the middle, drivers might have the option of going to a vacant front space – the best of both worlds.) The day before it was nine of 49. This anecdotal percentage jibe with a survey conducted by AAA, which found that 24% of those surveyed said they supported.

Backed up in cars on the University of Delaware campus.
Ben yagoda

Incidentally, the photograph shows that cars parked closest to campus are more likely to have backed up. This is a constant daily trend and suggests that the first to arrive are go-getters and more willing to do a bit of homework at the start in order to have a smooth and clear exit. The idea of ​​the go-getter is consistent with the thesis of the only academic to study of this subject which has never been undertaken.

There are several theories, but little evidence, as to why Americans don’t come back often

In “Prediction of productivity gains from parking behavior”, a 2014 article published in the International Journal of Emerging Markets, author Shaomin Li, professor of management at Old Dominion University, describes his visit to Taiwan. He notes that, unlike in the United States, most drivers have backed off into spaces:

“Needless to say, rear parking takes more time and effort than front parking. Still, it is easier, faster and safer to get out. So, we can surmise that people bother to back down by demonstrating their ability to delay gratification; they want to invest more time and effort now so that they can reap the rewards of their labor later. They demonstrate a culture of long-term orientation.

Li took photos of how cars were parked in the United States and Taiwan, and asked friends to do the same in the so-called BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China. The save percentage was:

United States: 5.7

Brazil: 17.1

India: 25.4

Russia: 35

Taiwan: 59.4

China: 88

Li then superimposed the declining parking rates with the countries’ annual productivity gain between 2001 and 2011. There was a positive correlation of 0.83. Brazil and the United States recorded the lowest productivity gains, at 1.3% and 1.5%, respectively, while China had the highest, at 17.8%.

His thesis is plausible, but the study has its weaknesses: it only shows a correlation; there was no logic in choosing the lots or the time of day; and, most disturbingly, the sample size was small, ranging from 106 to 159 cars per country.

Mary Smith, chair of the geometry committee Parking advisor advice, may have a better explanation for the low percentage of people in this country who return. As Smith observed in an email:

“Americans are not taught to back up in stalls neither during training nor by observing the habits of other drivers. As a result, the average American is not comfortable backing up in a parking lot… Europeans are more often challenged to get cars in and out in tight spaces and to learn how to back cars in tight spaces. parking spaces at an early age.

(Smith is yet another authority who recommends backing off, calling it “safer overall.”)

The internet also offers several theories as to why people who show up in spaces do it this way: it’s not that they want to delay gratification or that they haven’t been trained enough, but that they are women and / or women. Colorful explanations of this idea can be found all over the web, for example here.

To some extent, a 2010 to study by Claudia C. Wolf and her colleagues at German Ruhr University in Bochum confirmed the stereotype. The researchers took male and female drivers of different experience levels into a parking lot and asked them to face a car in a space, back up a car, and parallel park. The men parked much faster – perhaps not surprisingly, as many of them are still under the spell of Steve McQueen’s iconic parking job at Bullitt.

As for accuracy (measured by distance to neighboring cars), men were slightly better in all three maneuvers, only parallel parking showing statistically significant superiority.

Support requires mental rotation skills

The speed difference may have less to do with inherent ability and more to do with male propensity to take risks. In driving, the negative aspects of this trait outweigh the positive aspects. According to Insurance Institute for Road Safety, on a mileage basis, men are killed in traffic accidents 50 percent more often than women.

Still, there is a difference between men and women – and more generally, within the general population – on the skills that go into parking, especially backing up parking. The most important skill is what psychologists “Mental rotation”, or the ability to imagine objects in a position other than their actual position. (You can test your own mental rotation skills here.) For reasons still widely debated, men are on the whole better mental rotators than women.

But not this man. With me, in fact, it’s kind of a perfect storm of bad space skills: besides parking, I’m bad at drawing, lip-reading (even when someone shouts “Hello!”), And having intuition to turn right or left in a dead end in Venice. I suck so bad at Pictionary that the jaws of my playing partners drop in amazement. As a result, despite all the recommendations of the experts, I remain an unrepentant front-inner.

How technology can help us get back

There is hope for people like me, and it takes the form of technology. In recent years, many cars have been fitted with rear cameras and other systems that offer tremendous assistance in backing up, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has mandated that all new automobiles include some type of rear view camera by 2018.

Testing a car with an Around View system.
Ben yagoda

My 2013 Ford C-Max only has a beep that starts to sound when I’m about to back up into something, which doesn’t help me avoid cars on the sides. To see how well the new technology works, I asked my local Nissan dealer if I could try a car with the Around the view monitoring – considered one of the best systems. I got behind the wheel of a Maxima on their land, got out of a space and came back again.

Unfortunately, it took me 53 seconds. But I had a feeling that with this new technology and with enough practice, everyone, including me, will eventually be able to back up in the parking spaces diligently: not exactly Steve McQueen speed, but close enough. for jazz.

Ben yagoda is a professor of journalism at the University of Delaware and most recently author of The B-side: the death of Tin Pan Alley and the rebirth of great American song.

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Deena S. Hawkins

The author Deena S. Hawkins