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It’s much safer to back into parking spaces. Why don’t we do it?

There is hope for people with bad spatial skills: rear-view cameras.

The AAA recommends that “drivers reverse into parking spaces whenever possible.”
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Every year, some 300 people are killed and 18,000 are injured by drivers who are backing up, usually in driveways or parking lots.

There’s a simple way to prevent a lot of these accidents: We could back into parking space so that we don’t have to back out.

Note that I’m 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 backs in, except for jerks like George’s nemesis in this classic Seinfeld bit.

In a parking lot, the AAA thinks we should back in, recommending that “drivers reverse into parking spaces whenever possible, except where prohibited by law or parking lot restrictions.”

Tom Vanderbilt, author of the classic book Traffic, thinks so, too. As does Car Talk. Here’s how host Ray Magliozzi concisely explained the dangers of backing out of a space: “While your car's butt is sticking out into traffic, you can't see if there are 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 do this.

It is cumbersome to back out of a space, to be sure. But it would seem to be much harder to back in. In the first scenario, you’re backing into the universe, with the all the margin of error that implies. In the other, you’re backing into an unforgiving rectangle.

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

Things have changed in a quarter-century. Recently, at the parking lot I use on the campus of my employer, the University of Delaware, I counted 11 out of 43 cars parked on the perimeter of the lot that were facing front. (I limited my calculation to the perimeter because in double rows in the middle, drivers might have the option of pulling through to a vacant forward space — the best of both worlds.) The day before that it was nine of 49. That anecdotal percentage jibes with a survey conducted by AAA, which found that 24 percent of respondents reported backing in.

Backed in cars on the University of Delaware campus.
Ben Yagoda

Incidentally, the photograph shows cars parked closest to campus being more likely to have backed in. This is a consistent day-to-day trend and suggests that early arrivers are go-getters and more willing to do a little work at the outset so as to have a smooth and clear exit. The go-getter idea is consistent with the thesis of the only academic study of this topic that has ever been undertaken.

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

In “Predicting productivity gains from parking behavior,” a 2014 article published in the International Journal of Emerging Markets, author Shaomin Li, a professor of management at Old Dominion University, describes visiting Taiwan. He notices that, in contrast to the US, most drivers there backed into spaces:

“Needless to say, back-in parking takes more time and effort than head-in parking. Yet, it is easier, quicker, and safer when exiting. Thus we may conjecture that people take the trouble to back in demonstrate the ability to delay gratification; they want to invest more time and effort now so they can enjoy the fruits of their labor later. They demonstrate a culture of long-term orientation.”

Li took photographs of how cars were parked in US and Taiwan lots, and had friends do the same in the so-called BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India, and China. The percent backed-in was:

US: 5.7

Brazil: 17.1

India: 25.4

Russia: 35

Taiwan: 59.4

China: 88

Li then overlaid the back-in parking rates with the countries’ annual productivity gain between 2001 and 2011. There was an .83 positive correlation. Brazil and the United States had the lowest productivity gain, at 1.3 and 1.5 percent, respectively, while China had the highest, at 17.8 percent.

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

Mary Smith, chair of the Geometrics Committee of the Parking Consultants Council, may have a better explanation of the small percentage of people in this country who back in. As Smith observed in an email:

“Americans are not taught to back into stalls either during instruction or by observation of the habits of other drivers. This results in the average American not being comfortable backing into a parking stall.… Europeans are more often challenged to get cars into and out of tight spaces and learn to back cars into parking spaces at an early age.”

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

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

To some extent, a 2010 study by Claudia C. Wolf and colleagues at Germany's Ruhr University-Bochum bore out the stereotype. The researchers took male and female drivers of varying experience levels to a parking garage and asked them to front a car into a space, back a car in, and parallel park backing up. The men parked significantly faster — perhaps not surprising, as so many of them are still under the spell of Steve McQueen’s iconic parking job in Bullitt.

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

Backing in requires mental rotation skills

The difference in speed may have had to do less with any inherent ability and more with the male propensity for taking risks. In driving, the negatives of that trait outweigh the positives. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, on a per-miles-driven 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 overall population — on the skills that go into parking, especially parking while backing up. The most important such skill is what psychologists “mental rotation,” or the ability to imagine objects in other than their actual position. (You can test your own mental rotation skills here.) For reasons that are still widely debated, men are on the whole better mental rotators than women.

But not this man. With me, in fact, it’s a sort of perfect storm of bad spatial skills: In addition to parking, I’m terrible at drawing, reading lips (even when someone is shouting “Hello!”), and intuiting whether to turn right or left at a Venice dead end. I am so terrible at Pictionary that my playing partners’ jaws drop in amazement. As a result, despite all the experts’ recommendations, I remain an unrepentant fronter-inner.

How technology can help us back in

There is hope for the likes of me, and it comes in the form of technology. For some years, many cars have been equipped with rear cameras and other systems that offer considerable help with 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 has only a beep-beep that starts sounding when I’m about to back into something, which is no help in avoiding the cars on the sides. To see how well the new technology works, I asked my local Nissan dealer if I could try out a car with the Around View monitoring — considered one of the top systems. I got behind the wheel of a Maxima on their lot, pulled out of a space, and proceeded to back in again.

It was a revelation, sort of. The dashboard had a large monitor, on which tri-colored guide lines offered immediate real-time feedback on whether my turn was even a little off. I backed into the space and ended up virtually equidistant from the neighboring cars.

Unfortunately, it took me 53 seconds. But I had the feeling that, with this new technology and with sufficient practice, everyone, including me, will eventually be able to back into parking spaces with dispatch: Not exactly Steve McQueen-like speed, but close enough for jazz.

Ben Yagoda is a professor of journalism at the University of Delaware and the author, most recently, of The B Side: The Death of Tin Pan Alley and the Rebirth of the Great American Song.