Science taking fear out of tight parking places

Technology: You can't buy it in America, but a new system from Toyota assists anxious drivers.

November 10, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The Motor Vehicle Administration calls it the "skills test" because it gauges many of the skills that drivers need to master before they're allowed to motor off alone in traffic.

But many novices lined up nervously in their automobiles at the MVA's Glen Burnie office will tell you that there's only one part of the test that stands between them and a license: parallel parking. It is the most common reason people flunk.

And it worried Darlarene Morgan, 26, of Baltimore, who practiced parallel parking 15 times before the state examiner climbed into the passenger seat of her mother's car with his clipboard one recent morning.

"You can't bang into the poles, and you only have a certain amount of time," Morgan said. "I hate being on a time limit."

Her mother, Patricia Morgan, 45, felt Darlarene's pain. "I failed twice," she acknowledged.

If only there were a car that parked itself.

Actually, there is. Toyota has developed a new technology, called Intelligent Parking Assist (IPA), that draws a bead on the curbside space and parks the car with no more effort from the driver than a few taps on a computer screen.

"Is there any way we can rent that car?" asked Tim Lee of Baltimore County, who was waiting for his wife, Tran Tran, 22, to take her road test.

Sorry, Tim. The IPA system is available only on Toyota's 2004 gas-electric hybrid Prius. As a $2,100 option. And only in Japan, where parking is cramped and spaces rent for up to $450 a month. More on that later.

Janice Carter-Stroud, an MVA skills test supervisor in Glen Burnie, said 40 percent of license applicants fail their first road test. Many of them flunk because of parallel parking. "Ninety-eight percent of them say, `Oh, this is the part I dread' or `the part I failed previously.' Most of the time it's just nerves," she said.

Even when they pass the MVA test, many drivers never give up their fear and avoid parallel parking all their lives.

"It's not because it's a difficult maneuver," said Richard Whitcomb, driver training manager for the American Automobile Association. "But where you have to put a lot of things together at one time ... there's a lot more margin for error."

To pass the test, a driver must: (a) judge the available space accurately; (b) pull up close beside the car in front; (c) control the car's motion and time the steering just so - first one way, then the other - so the car slips in to within a foot of the curb; and (d) do it all without jumping the curb or tapping the flags that mark the boundary of the space.

Oh, and the MVA gives you three minutes to get it right. For some, it's a puzzle.

"It's like they're doing something in reverse," Whitcomb said, "like they're trying to write in a mirror, and their brains don't translate that very well."

A skill and a hurdle

Parallel parking remains a vital skill in many crowded downtown areas. Angle parking is easier and squeezes more cars into the same curb space. But traffic engineers prefer parallel parking; it generates fewer accidents and interferes less with traffic flow.

Practice helps - but as a result of suburban sprawl, head-in parking lots and garages, millions of us go weeks, perhaps years, without wriggling into a tight curbside slot.

"When you really get down to it, you can live a long and fruitful life and never parallel park," Whitcomb said.

Still, parallel parking remains a hurdle on driving tests in Maryland and many other states - partly as a proxy for other skills.

"People say, `I don't have to parallel park - we have driveways,'" said MVA licensing agent Robert Ritchie. But "if you ever go into a city, and you can't get into a parking lot, you're going to have to parallel park."

Even if a driver never has to parallel park, the test still has value, Whitcomb said.

"It allows the examiners to observe several different driving maneuvers at low speed, in a low-risk environment," he said.

It tests drivers' range of motion as they turn and look out the back while they steer. And it reveals their sense of their car's "footprint" - where it is relative to nearby obstacles. Some people just don't have it.

"I've had 'em attempt to parallel park and wind up on the sidewalk," said Vincent "Captain O" Ollivierre, an instructor at the Friendly Driving School in Catonsville. "Or they wind up denting dad's or mom's fenders."

Some states substitute a three-point turn that "accomplishes the same purpose, and it's less intimidating," Whitcomb said. But he says students exaggerate the difficulty of parallel parking and generate needless angst as their tests approach.

"You have a self-fulfilling prophecy here," he said. "Nerves have a lot to do with it."

Some experts say parallel parking should be dropped from drivers' tests altogether.

"It is absolutely antiquated," said Frederik Mottola, founder of the National Institute for Driver Behavior and publisher of widely used driver education curriculums.

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