When you think of driving dangers, you probably think about risky behaviors like speeding and distraction, or hazardous situations like foul weather. You probably don’t picture a parking lot. Yet, as many as 20% of all police-reported vehicle crashes happen in parking lots or garages. Most of these incidents aren’t severe. But because they happen often, it’s essential to pay attention to safety while parking.
The same safety principles that apply to driving in any environment apply to driving in a parking lot or garage, at a bare minimum. But other potential problems come into play when parking is involved.
Knowing how and why parking poses safety risks — and how to avoid those risks — is critical to reducing your odds of a crash while parking. Let’s examine the risk factors associated with parking and review best practices that can help keep you safer when parking in any environment.
Choosing A Spot
When you choose where to park, what impacts your decision? If you’re like most motorists, ease and convenience are your top priorities. But Beth Lomash said that shouldn’t be the case.
“Finding a spot right in front of a store or office building may be convenient, but it puts you closer to other traffic and pedestrians,” said Lomash, who retired as a sergeant of the Maryland Natural Resources Police and now serves as a driver safety instructor with Advanced Driver Training Services.
At the same time, parking too far away from your destination may not be best from a personal safety standpoint, especially if you’re returning to your vehicle after dark. Balancing driver safety and personal safety is critical.
During daylight hours, and if you feel safe doing so, aim to park further away from the building so you’re less likely to come into contact with other vehicles and pedestrians. At night, always choose a well-lit area to park in.
If you ever feel uncomfortable about returning to your vehicle alone, ask a building security officer or store manager to accompany you. If you’re approaching the vehicle and become suspicious for any reason, return to the building and ask for help.
Entering The Spot
When it comes to the actual parking maneuver, many of us make a common mistake: we pull head-in to a parking spot, then back out when it’s time to leave. That’s the worst approach, Lomash said.
When you back out of a parking space, you need to back about two-thirds of your vehicle out of the space blindly before you can gain a good line of sight. “That leaves two-thirds of your vehicle exposed to passing traffic before you can see what’s coming,” she said. If you return to a car that’s flanked on both sides by larger vehicles, visibility while backing out can be even more difficult.
On top of that, backing is something you spend very little time doing — even if you’ve been driving for many years — so most of us just aren’t very good at it.
There are two safer ways to enter a parking space:
- Pull Through: When the parking spaces aren’t angled and there are no barriers, choose a space that allows you to pull through to the one facing the adjacent lane. You won’t have to back out, so you’ll have a better line of sight when leaving. Scan the area carefully first to ensure there are no vehicles in the adjacent lane preparing to pull in.
- Back In: When the parking spaces aren’t angled, you can back into the parking space. It’s safer to back into the controlled environment of a parking space (as compared to the uncontrolled environment of moving traffic), and you’ll have a better view when pulling out. Put on your turn signal, drive just past the space, tap your horn lightly twice, and scan for pedestrians and vehicles. If the view is clear, look over your right shoulder and slowly back in.
Parking on the Street
- If your travels take you on city streets or in towns with on-street parking, you gain the advantage of avoiding busy parking lots and garages. But that’s offset by two tricky aspects of parking on the street.
- First, on-street parking often requires you to parallel park – something many drivers aren’t accustomed to doing. To parallel park safely, follow this process:
- When you see an open space ahead, begin to slow down and put your turn signal on so the driver behind you knows your intent.
- Slowly drive just past the open space and put your vehicle in reverse.
- Hit the horn lightly twice to alert other drivers and pedestrians.
- Turn to look over your right shoulder to ensure you have a clear path to back up.
- Slowly begin to back into the space.
Second, when you park on the street you need to be extremely careful exiting and entering your vehicle to avoid being hit by passing traffic. When exiting, check your side-view mirror and turn to look over your left shoulder to ensure there’s no oncoming traffic or approaching bicyclists. When entering the vehicle, stay on the sidewalk and scan the traffic in both directions to make sure you have a clear path before walking around to the driver’s side.
Using your Mirrors
Your mirrors can be a great help when you’re parking — but don’t rely on them solely.
For safety when backing up, Lomash says you need to use all the tools at your disposal. You should certainly use your rearview and side mirrors, and a rearview camera if you have one. But it’s also helpful to turn around in your seat and look over your shoulder for a more complete view of the area. A rearview camera only shows a limited area directly behind you. It doesn’t show you if a person or vehicle is heading toward you from either direction.
“If you’re driving with a passenger and you’re having trouble seeing, your passenger could serve as your spotter,” Lomash pointed out. "They can look out their window or even exit the vehicle and help to guide you if needed."
More Parking Do's and Don'ts
- Do always stay in the correct lane of travel, on the right side of the roadway.
- Don’t cut across parking stalls. It can take another driver by surprise and cause a collision.
- Do reduce your speed in parking lots and garages. If pedestrians are near, slow down further and cover the brake by hovering your foot right above the brake pedal.
- Don’t use your cell phone or allow yourself to be distracted by anything other than driving while traveling through a parking lot or garage.
- Do scan the parking area 360 degrees on a rotating basis, especially near pedestrians.
- Don’t assume parents are paying attention to their children while walking.
- Do obey all traffic signs, including stop signs near the front of a building. Come to a full stop and look both ways before proceeding.
- Don’t park in a remote area if you plan to return to your vehicle after dark.
- Do store valuables in the trunk or cargo area or cover them so they’re not visible to thieves.
- Don’t leave your vehicle unlocked, even if you only expect to be gone briefly.
Following a few simple best practices can greatly reduce your odds of a parking collision.
Judie Nuskey is the director of Operations at Advanced Driver Training Services and assists corporations in creating custom driver training programs to lower (or keep low) their crash rates.