Refuting Forward Facing Parking


by Phil La Duke

The National Safety Council Driver safety course recommends that when parking one should pull through a parking space and into the adjoining space such that your vehicle is facing forward. The claim made by this course, and to be fair many safety professionals, is that forward motion from a parking space is safer than backing out of a parking space.
This is the kind of reasoning on which every urban legend is built; it sounds reasonable, credible it makes perfect sense, but just as it bears the characteristics of an urban legend it likewise bears the fatal flaws that reveal the lack of veracity of an urban legend.
This is not a condemnation of the course overall; in fact, there are so many horrible drivers on the road (and according to 1.3 million people are killed in car accidents each year. Moreover, my personal experience with the Allen Park Department of Public Works has convinced me that public safety as it pertains to the driving habits of its contractors is of no concern.) So while I think that defensive driving courses are a necessary part of any comprehensive worker safety program, I am going to pick a nit when it comes to parking forward-facing parking.
I have some personal experience in this regard. Long before I took the National Safety Council course I took a competitive course that also recommended the forward-facing parking practice and I adopted it as common practice.
One day I parked my mid-size passenger car in the parking lot. It was early and there were few cars in the parking lot. I easily pulled through the parking space so that I was forward facing with no other vehicles around. When I went to leave at the end of the day the lot was crowded and I found that two pickup trucks large enough to leave no doubt as to the insecurity of the driver’s masculinity. My view was blocked in both directions and I had no choice but to inched out slowly forward. Before I could establish a clear line of sight, a speeding motorist slammed into my front end. She narrowly missed striking the truck and fortunately, no one was injured but my car was damaged.
I went over the situation with a friend who also teaches problem-solving and why did a situation analysis on the contributing factors. We recognized that while theoretically forward facing parking is safer, it negates three important safety devices that make backing up (despite the lessened visibility) safer than forward facing.
First of all, the premise that forward-facing parking is safer is predicated to a large extent on the fact that you have greater visibility than if you are backing out. This is often completely outside the driver’s control. When I parked I was able to see for miles and I had absolutely no control over who would park next to me and this often as a profound effect on the driver’s visibility. So giving the advocates for forward-facing parking the benefit of the doubt in a perfect world, where large vehicles don’t park next to you forward-facing parking may well be safer, but again, it also negates several engineering controls.
The first engineering control is brake lights, which act as visual warnings that a driver is backing out of the space. When a forward facing parked vehicle enters traffic the brake lights are not visible and therefore while the driver entering traffic arguably would have greater visibility (again assuming it is above the surrounding vehicles) the car entering traffic is LESS visible. Furthermore, while it is foreseeable, even probable that there will be traffic that one will encounter when leaving a parking space (and the driver MUST yield the right of way) it is less foreseeable and probable that a vehicle will be pulling out of a parking space; add to this that a forward facing vehicle is more likely to enter traffic more quickly the absence of brake lights can be a deciding factor in whether or not there is an accident.
Similarly, the second engineering control, backup lights, are also neglected, and in addition to the visual cue that it provides to approaching traffic, unlike brake lights that indicate that the vehicle has stopped or is stopping, backup lights indicate that the car’s transmission is currently in reverse, providing additional information to approaching traffic.
The negation of these two engineering controls reduces the reaction time of oncoming vehicles.
There are other safety features that are nullified by forward-facing parking, most notably rear collision alarms and back up cameras. Of course, not all vehicles are equipped with these devices, but if they are, they further deflate the argument that forward-facing parking is intrinsically and safer than pulling into a parking space.
So in the final estimation, drivers should make a judgment call when parking and like in so many other circumstances use good common sense instead of blindly adhering to conventional wisdom.