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Will parking-assist technology make more drivers back their vehicles into spaces?

Can how you park your car be related to how much you’ll enjoy your retirement?

It’s a possibility, according to the literature on the subject, scarce as it is.

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For starters, North Americans are overwhelmingly likely to drive right into a parking space rather than back up into it, statistics from the American Automobile Association suggest.

Back-up cameras became mandatory in Canada this past May, for example, while rear-collision alert systems that warn of oncoming traffic behind the car are becoming more prevalent. These systems use radar sensors mounted in the rear bumper to detect movement from other cars, then brake automatically if a collision is expected.

More advanced systems, such as those found in newer-model Nissan and Infiniti vehicles, are replacing radar sensors with sonar, which can detect people as well as cars. “There’s a lot going on and a lot to process,” says Scott Pak, senior product planning manager for Nissan North America. “This is another step to minimizing injuries and fatalities.”

The American Automobile Association recommends that drivers not rely solely on such systems – at least, not yet. In a 2015 report, the organization found that rear cross-traffic alert sensors failed to detect passing vehicles and pedestrians in 40 and 60 per cent of tests, respectively. That recommendation is slightly dated, though.

As these systems improve, how we park may one day no longer be a supposed indictment of our self-indulgence. Only about 11 per cent of adult drivers in the United States back up all or most of the time. Conversely, more than half rarely or never do so. Men are more likely to back up, doing so 31 per cent of the time, versus women at 18 per cent.

The Canadian Automobile Association doesn’t keep similar statistics, but representatives don’t believe drivers here differ much from their American counterparts. Canadians, apparently, also aren’t much for following the prescribed best practices.

“Whenever possible, drivers should reverse into a parking space,” says AAA spokesperson Ellen Edmonds. “This increases driver visibility and lessens the likelihood of a crash.”

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So why the predilection for doing the opposite? Neither organization can explain the phenomenon, although CAA suggests it could have something to do with large vehicles and bigger parking lots.

“The spots are big, there’s lots of space. It tends to probably be a feeling of just get in there and get it done,” says Jason Kerr, director of government relations for CAA. “But that’s just a hunch.”

The AAA stats jibe with the findings of a 2014 study by Shaomin Li, a business management professor at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Va. In his paper, which was published in the International Journal of Emerging Markets, Li found that back-in parking rates were much higher in Asia and other parts of the world than in North America.

In China, for example, about 88 per cent of drivers back up. Taiwan’s rate is also high, at 59 per cent, while Russia, India and Brazil come in around 35, 25 and 17 per cent, respectively. The U.S. rate was much lower, at just 5 per cent.

Li compared the rates with gross domestic product in each of the six countries and found some correlations. Those countries with higher back-up parking had also experienced greater GDP growth since 2011.

The correlations were enough for Li to surmise a link between the two. “Back-up parking takes more time, it’s an investment,” he says in an interview. “It’s about delayed gratification.”

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That delayed gratification – where backing into a spot takes more time initially but can result in a faster exit – could also translate into other economic measures such as retirement savings, which similarly require short-term sacrifice for long-term gain.

International savings rates do indeed correlate with back-up parking. China is again the leader in this measure, with about 46 per cent of the country’s GDP wrapped up in savings. South Korea is also near the top at 16 per cent.

Canada and the United States, however, are near the bottom, at 2.8 and 3.7 per cent of GDP, respectively.

Li suggests the differences may be cultural and even political. Countries without strong social safety nets and retirement programs encourage people to plan for the future, whereas the opposite is true in more stable nations where people are more spendthrift.

Li admits he can’t properly test this theory, since he doesn’t have any way to accumulate historical parking records. Nevertheless, he hypothesizes that North Americans didn’t always drive directly into parking spaces – that more productive and competitive economic situations in the past required them to think ahead more.

“Maybe in the earlier automotive era, people did back in more,” he says.

Regardless of drivers' behaviour in previous decades, parking habits could potentially change in years to come as new technology becomes more commonplace.

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