There are two words that strike terror in the hearts of those hoping to earn a driver’s license: parallel park. A learner can successfully do every other aspect of the driver’s exam – right and left turns, navigate controlled and uncontrolled intersections, starting and stopping, lane changes, traffic lights, varied speeds, proper following distances – but if they fail to parallel park properly, they’ll fail.
Of course, if they succeed, many of them will never parallel park again.
Which poses the question: Why is parallel parking part of every province’s driver’s test? Is it nostalgia? Is it a throwback to our time as a colony? That is, after all, why parallel parking was put in the test in the first place. Canadian driver’s exams were originally modelled on those from Britain and Europe, where parking space was (and continues to be) at a premium. In Canada today, at least outside the major cities, there is plenty of space. Those who don’t want to try a parallel park can simply circle the block until a space they can nose into opens up. Making the ability to parallel park the do-or-die manoeuvre for the driver’s exam is like making it mandatory for high-school students to dance the foxtrot in order to win their diplomas. It seems a little archaic.
In America, parallel parking is no longer required in many states. Back in 1990, Florida was the first state to drop parallel parking from its test. At the time, the argument for getting rid of it was that parallel parking was not “a big killer.” Today, parallel parking is not required as part of driver’s tests in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming. Essentially, driving experts in these states acknowledge that while parallel parking is difficult, it’s also irrelevant.
Michigan is the latest jurisdiction to consider dropping it as a requirement to obtain a driver’s licence. Republican congresswoman Sarah Lightner, who, in July, 2019, introduced a bill to get rid of it, said she did so after receiving many complaints from hopefuls who had paid their $50 exam fee, but failed because of what they considered a “superfluous skill.” She told WZZM-TV, “It’s a money game. It’s becoming an outdated practice. If you do have a parallel parking issue, if you can’t fit, drive around the block.”
Semi-autonomous technology is making this “superfluous skill” obsolete. Many vehicles come with self-parking technology. The 2019 Ford Escape’s self-parking system, for instance, identifies the best parallel parking space and steers the car. The 2019 BMW 230i’s parking assist pilots the Bimmer into the spot while allowing the driver to handle the accelerator and brakes.
The main objection to taking parallel parking off driver’s tests come from those who had to endure the experience of mastering it. I suffered the parallel parking gauntlet back in 1982 and have become a virtuoso. Fifteen years of driving a minivan in Toronto forced me to perfect the art of backing into tight squeezes. Show me a spot and I’ll parallel in. Is it really too much to ask for new drivers to demonstrate some old-fashioned prowess? Being paralyzed by the prospect of parallel parking is fine if you plan to restrict your driving to the suburbs, but what if you wish to travel abroad or to venture downtown?
These arguments have some merit but, in the long run, they are unlikely to hold sway. There are legions of angry driver’s-exam failures who want their licenses and don’t want to parallel park. The days of the practice being a key part of Canadian driving tests are probably doomed. It’s too bad we don’t have a way to test how likely aspiring drivers are to be distracted behind the wheel. Perhaps when they drop “parallel parking,” they can replace it by demanding that new drivers demonstrate “paying attention.”
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