Cars are backed into spaces in an underground parking garage on L Street NW. It seems like more motorists are backing in these days. (John Kelly/TWP)
Columnist

How often do you back into a parking space, as opposed to pulling in frontward?

I ask because I’m guessing you do it more than you used to. That’s my totally unscientific — but not totally unwarranted — observation.

I base this conclusion on an underground garage near my office that I park in a few days a week. Every time I descend into its bowels, I notice that nearly every vehicle has backed into its space.

It looks so neat and orderly. I’m sure parking lots didn’t use to be this way. Two parking experts agreed, though they stressed that their observations were strictly anecdotal.

Gary Cudney is president of Carl Walker Inc., a parking design firm in Kalamazoo, Mich. Mary Smith is senior vice president of Walker Parking in Indianapolis. (Are all parking consulting firms called Walker? These two happened to have been founded by the same guy, who sold the first then opened the second.)

Mary said that research in the 1980s suggested that Americans were half as likely to back into a space as Britons. She feels this is because U.S. drivers aren’t taught to back in, while motorists in other countries are.

What we call a parking space, parking engineers call a stall. A well-designed parking garage gets people in and out of the stalls safely and quickly. Reversing a car — in or out — takes longer. More people seem to be doing it when they arrive rather than when they leave. Why? We kicked around some ideas:

It’s easier. These days, backup cameras and collision-avoidance systems come as standard equipment in more and more vehicles. While a camera doesn’t make you a better driver, it can help with the two- or three-point turns needed to back into a stall.

Because of SUVs. “Backing into a stall means that you can pull forward out, which is much safer,” said Mary. “It’s so much harder to see pulling out when you’re parked near SUVs.” More SUVs means more drivers wanting to position themselves for maximum visibility.

We’re finally allowed to. Gary said he has designed parking garages where motorists were told they could not back in. Garage owners often require front-in parking if a monthly parking voucher is displayed on the rear windshield. Some garages have changed their payment methods.

Sometimes, Gary said, garages prohibit back-in parking because the rear overhang of a car — from the back wheel to the back bumper — is usually longer than the overhang at the front. If you back in and use a curb to “feel” the space, your rear bumper may hit a wall.

We’re protecting our stuff. Mary said some people have told her they back in so that their trunk is against the wall, making it difficult for a thief to pop it open.

We know we’ll be tired at the end of the day. In the morning, we’re relatively fresh, able to muster the brain power and coordination to back in. In the evening, all we want to do is split. We plan accordingly.

Gary said there might be something to this theory. People arrive at different times in the morning, while, “At the end of the day, it’s more of a peak flow. There’s peer pressure: ‘Everybody else is backing in. If I don’t, I’m screwed.’ ”

But here’s the weird part: I sometimes park in an aboveground, county-owned lot near the Metro in Silver Spring. Not even a third of the cars there are parked rear-in. Why the difference?

I think that’s because aboveground garages are roomier and, since they’re open at the sides, less claustrophobic. Backing out isn’t that much of a hardship.

Obviously, more study is needed.

Cold comfort

Good news for custard lovers: The Dairy Godmother will return. Liz Davis, founder of the 17-year-old custard emporium in Alexandria’s Del Ray neighborhood, tells me so many people expressed interest in taking over her business that she is “certain it will be able to reopen in March.”

Liz said she heard from many interested parties, including some with “Wisconsin pedigree” as well as “government workers trying to reinvent themselves.”

Well, there is a federal hiring freeze on. Maybe those people would rather work at a place where something else gets frozen.

Bye for now

I’m taking a week off to work on some important projects (Squirrel Week is coming in April, don’t forget). Watch for me back in this space on Feb. 6.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.