AAA: Beware the Perils of Parking Lots This Holiday Season

ThinkstockPhotos-139704879.jpg Jamie Wilson/Thinkstock

CARS.COM — America has it all backwards when it comes to parking, and the technology available today can’t fix that, AAA said in a study released today. The study highlights the perils of backing out of parking spaces and concludes that the rear cross-traffic alert systems available on many current vehicles are helpful, but are not as reliable as many drivers may think.

“Americans should rely more on driving skills than technology,” AAA said in a release, recommending that American motorists turn things around and back into parking spaces whenever possible. That way they face forward when they leave, giving them a better view of surrounding traffic.

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AAA partnered with its affiliated Automobile Club of Southern California to test the effectiveness of rear cross-traffic alert systems, though it did not specify the vehicles tested. These systems give audible and visual warnings that traffic is approaching from the sides behind a vehicle being driven in Reverse, but the tests showed that their performance varies widely. John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of automotive engineering and repair, said AAA did not identify the vehicles used for the cross-traffic alert test because “it’s less about the brand and more about the variations in technology. As we move towards autonomous vehicles you will see this technology continue to mature because it’s the technology that will enable self-driving cars.”

When vehicles with rear cross-traffic alert were parked between two large vehicles, such as SUVs or minivans — a frequent real-world occurrence — AAA found that the systems failed to detect:

  • A passing motorcycle 48 percent of the time
  • A passing bicycle 40 percent of the time
  • A passing midsize sedan 30 percent of the time
  • A passing pedestrian 60 percent of the time (though some systems were not designed to detect pedestrians, a fact that all drivers might not be aware of).

“The technology is different in each car, and there are some cars that do very well and some that don’t do as well under certain conditions. No matter which car you have, consumers should be cautious about being totally dependent on the technology,” Nielsen said, adding that the same warning applies to vehicles with backup cameras.

An earlier AAA test of backup cameras found that none shows 100 percent of the area behind a vehicle and that cameras can be impaired by rain, snow or slush.

“Drivers should still look behind their car and check their mirrors before backing up. The technology is an aid to help us drive safely, but it is not a replacement for paying attention and being engaged in the driving process,” he said.

In other countries, including Australia and some in Europe, motorists are often required to back into spaces in parking lots, but U.S. drivers do the opposite for the most part. AAA found in a survey that 76 percent of U.S. drivers most frequently “front-in” to parking spaces. Many U.S. parking lots have angled parking spaces and one-way aisles that preclude backing in. (Nielsen said the cross-traffic alerts worked well in angled spaces because the sensors had a clear view of surroundings.)

AAA said rear cross-traffic alert was available on 38 percent of model-year 2015 vehicles, and when it was included in option packages the total package costs ranged from $600 to more than $9,000, with the average cost $2,373.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, backup cameras were available on about 75 percent of model-year 2015 vehicles and will be mandatory by 2018. NHTSA is mandating them to help prevent backover deaths and injuries, particularly in young children. The agency estimates that more than 250 deaths and about 15,000 injuries occur annually when a motorists backs over a pedestrian. NHTSA estimates that 39 percent of backover fatalities occur in residential driveways and parking lots of apartment and town-house complexes. Nonresidential parking lots account for 17 percent of backover fatalities and 52 percent of injuries.

Vehicles often move at a walking speed in crowded parking lots, but they can be high-risk areas because so many vehicles are squeezed into a small space, and drivers are often in a hurry, particularly during the holiday shopping season.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in a 2003 study estimated that 14 percent of low-speed, fender-bender accidents occur in parking lots.

“Drivers should never forget that they have to contribute to safety. This technology helps mitigate problems, but it doesn’t solve every problem under every circumstance. Drivers should still be aware and cautious,” Nielsen said.

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