The perils of parking
Some motorists are naturally confident and capable when it comes to parking. They pride themselves on being able to squeeze into a tight urban space and are unfazed by the tight turns and pillars of multi-storey car parks.
Others used to be confident but their skills have declined. This typically happens when a city-dweller moves to the suburbs or the countryside and gets out of practice.
And then there are drivers who have always found parking troublesome. But for those of us who took our driving test before 1991 that's hardly surprising. It was only then that a reverse parking manoeuvre (bay or parallel park) was introduced into the test and so it's entirely possible that we were never properly taught this important skill.
Same space, bigger cars
Like cinema seats, cars have become more spacious than they used to be. Even smaller cars like the Vauxhall Corsa are 16% bigger than 15 years ago whilst models such as the Audi Q7 and BMW X5 are now too large to fit into the average parking space of 4.8 x 2.4 metres.
So is the answer to buy a smaller car? That's certainly one option. Cars such as the smartfortwo, or the Skoda Yeti if you need a larger vehicle, are compact enough to get into a standard space comfortably. Another is to track down larger spaces. Websites such as JustPark and YourParkingSpace allow homeowners to rent out their driveways, most of which are far more spacious than the average parking spot and bookable in advance. Many of the spaces have photos so you can see the exact size and layout.
Why the car you drive is too big
Parking practice makes perfect
But of course it's much better make the decision to improve your parking skills. 'Everyone who drives has to park,' says Rebecca Ashton, Head of Driver Behaviour at road safety charity IAM RoadSmart. 'However, many drivers find it stressful and will only attempt to park under certain conditions; for example if they can drive into a space rather than reverse in. Some will even limit themselves in the places they visit because of parking worries or face unnecessary stress and frustration driving round trying to find a space they can cope with and then have the inconvenience of walking further to their destination.'
There are plenty of ways you can improve your parking skills such as:
• Practising manoeuvres you find challenging when you've got plenty of time and no audience. Maybe a bay park in a deserted supermarket or a parallel park on a quiet street where it's unlikely that you'll find a stream of impatient motorists building up behind you.
• Watching videos on how to park on youtube. IAM RoadSmart also offers online tuition such as this E-learning Module: Parking and Manoeuvring for £5.
• By far the best option is to have some refresher lessons focused on the aspects of parking you are most keen to improve. You could contact a few local driving schools and explain that you are a licensed driver who would like to improve their parking skills and then go with whichever instructor you feel most comfortable with. Or take an IAM Roadsmart On-Road: Parking and Manoeuvring module with specialist coaching in your own car for £49.
More advice on how to park
I get by with a little help from my park assist
Thatcham Research, the motor insurers' research centre, is at the forefront of developing new vehicle technology and safety. 'Parking tech has come a long way over the past two decades,' says their Principal Engineer Colin Grover. 'Parking aids such as sensors and reversing cameras have become mainstream and are familiar to many of us but there's also a range of Parking Assist systems to choose from that can help motorists out when parking. Cars with assisted parking can scan and identify suitable spots to make sure that they will be able to effectively assist with parking the vehicle in the space.'
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Parking assist systems explained
This parking aid will automatically put the brakes on if you're about to reverse into something. 'Reverse auto-brake is a relatively new technology,' says Colin. 'We at Thatcham Research are very hopeful about the way it will be able to mitigate and reduce crashes. Currently it is only offered by a handful of manufacturers including Mazda, Toyota, BMW, VW and Skoda and is given different names by them, which can be a bit confusing for aspiring purchasers. Mazda's is called Smart City Brake Support (SCBS) and is offered in front and rear versions. The rear auto-brake version is very helpful in preventing parking collisions.'
Steering assisted parking
Once the park assist system has been activated, the driver is responsible for controlling speed and braking. However they can take their hands off the steering wheel and have the delightful or unnerving (depending on your perspective) experience of overseeing the car manoeuvre itself into position.
Here's a demonstration of how the BMW Parking Assistant works and one of the Volvo Park Assist Pilot.
'Early systems focused on parallel parking, reversing in between two other parked vehicles defining the space,' explains Colin Grover. 'Many modern systems carry out bay parking as well. In my personal experience the parallel parking is effective and it often does a good job first time, whilst the bay parking can take longer.'
Park and exit assistance
Don't you just hate it when you return to your car to find you've been boxed in? Some systems such as Volvo's Park Assist Pilot have a 'drive out' function that will help you make a fuss-free exit from a tight space
Fully assisted parking
Here the car doesn't just handle the steering but the speed and braking and even the gear changing too.
Remote control parking
This system provides the somewhat surreal experience of being able to get out of your car and watch it park itself. This is particularly useful for parking in a narrow space or garage. The feature is operated via a key fob or smartphone app and is available in certain high-end cars such as the BMW 7 Series.
The buck parks with you
Despite their different levels of sophistication all these systems have one thing in common. The driver must still take complete responsibility for their vehicle, stay alert and ready to over-ride the system. As we're all aware, no technology is completely perfect and if there are any problems it's always up to the driver to take full control.
Self-parking cars explained
Is park assist technology 'cheating'?
Whenever the topic of park assist technology comes up for discussion, whether that's in an online forum or down the pub, it isn't long before someone denounces it as 'cheating' and declares that if a driver doesn't feel confident parallel parking on a steep hill with inches to spare at each end they shouldn't be on the road in the first place.
Colin Grover feels that it's about finding a balance. 'Parking accidents make up a quarter of all insurance claims and three quarters of those accidents take place when reversing,' says Colin. 'Mostly they are just bumps and scratches, but of course these can still be expensive to repair and also embarrassing if you hit another car. Far more serious is the possibility of injuring a pedestrian or cyclist by reversing into them. Research has shown that elderly pedestrians are particularly vulnerable to accidents caused by drivers reversing in busy areas such as supermarket car parks. At Thatcham Research we believe that driver assistance systems are designed to support the driver and not replace them and that it's important for all of us to make every effort to improve our driving skills. However we also feel that investing in the right technology certainly shouldn't be seen as 'cheating' but as an helpful tool for drivers to keep themselves and other road users safe.'
Park assist technology is developing rapidly and what seems cutting-edge to us now will probably soon become a familiar sight. This has been acknowledged by the government to the extent that the Highway Code (rule 239) was updated in June 2018 to allow remote controlled parking under certain conditions.
'There are some fascinating new developments in the pipeline,' says Colin. 'New technology coming soon is 'trained parking' for frequently repeated manoeuvres such as reversing into your driveway. You park the car initially 'teaching' it where to go. Then the vehicle can repeat it with full park assist. Even more futuristic is the prospect of fully automated parking where you can leave the car at a designated car park and it will trundle off inside to find a space all by itself and return to you on command. But you'll have to wait until the early 2020s for that.'
Buying a car with park assist technology
Buying a car with park assist technology can feel like a confusing process, particularly since the manufacturers all have different names for their park assist systems. It's always best to do as much research as possible before going to a dealership. Get advice from family and friends who have the technology and check out online reviews and videos on YouTube and manufacturers' websites.
Some vehicles have certain park assist tech fitted as standard, whilst for others it's an optional extra that you'll have to pay more for. If it's an extra then parking assist can be offered as a stand-alone or bundled in as part of a 'pack' of features. So if it isn't fitted as standard you could be looking at paying an additional £200 - £2000 depending on the system you want and whether comes together with other features.
'When you go for a test drive it can be a good idea to ask the salesperson to take the wheel first so you can observe the technology in action without the added pressure of driving an unfamiliar vehicle in front of a stranger,' says Colin. 'If you'd like to try it out yourself exchange seats and take over. And if you don't feel the salesperson is explaining things clearly then try another dealership or manufacturer.'
Whether you decide to opt for refresher parking training, park assist technology or a combination of the two, investing some effort into getting your parking mojo back – or finding it if you never had it in the first place will be very liberating. It is tremendously satisfying to know you can arrive at any destination and feel not just king or queen of the road, but king or queen of the car park!