ANDREW Howard is the first to admit that it’s extremely embarrassing that he always makes a dog’s breakfast out of parallel parking outside the home of a friend who lives in Somerset.
She lives on a “hellish’ hill”, he says. The mortification arises out of the fact that he is head of road safety at the Automobile Association (AA).
His parking is generally up to scratch, he hastens to add, but lack of practice of the manoeuvre on a tricky gradient means he faces the same problem every time he arrives outside that particular house. His host, a former driving instructor, must simply watch and sigh.
As with any skill that’s not practised enough, under-use leads to a drop in confidence which in turn is highly likely to affect performance on the infrequent occasions when it has to be wheeled forth.
Despite the fact that women drivers are, by many indicators including accident record and likelihood of drinking and driving, considered to be better drivers than men, when it comes to parallel parking they are prone to lack of faith in themselves.
Drivers of both genders admit to having problems but many women lack the ability to complete the manoeuvre successfully, according to a survey carried out by the AA/Populus.
Of 20,000 adults questioned, 16 per cent of all drivers said they were not confident about lining their vehicle up next to another one. Among women the figure was 25 per cent.
Drivers in the east of England were the least confident, while Londoners were the most confident. Drivers in Yorkshire and the Humber were in line with the national statistics. Londoners’ confidence is not surprising, as driving and parking in the capital are very much a case of eat or be eaten.
About 19 per cent of those interviewed said they had even changed plans at the last minute because they lacked the confidence or skill to get their vehicle into a parking space. Women (28 per cent) were twice as likely as men to change their parking plans in this way – and head off to an expensive multi-storey rather than the cheap or free parking they’d intended to use.
We’ve all spotted drivers who dither about parallel parking, then pull out and drive off after the third failed attempt, or the driver who will do 20 circuits of a car park that has quite a few empty spaces, because they are not convinced they can successfully drive or reverse into any of them.
There are also a surprising number of drivers – yes, quite a few are women – who didn’t go straight for a few chaperoned sessions with mum or dad on the motorway soon after passing their test. Time passed, they never got to grips with it, and eventually the idea of motorway driving became too big and scary.
There are even those who, often in later life, will go to huge trouble to avoid driving a route that requires turning right. It’s all down to confidence, say the experts, as the skills required to drive safely and carry out common manoeuvres are all taught in the 40-odd hours’ tuition the average learner driver receives.
Much has been made about the difference in spatial awareness between men and women, but is this the explanation for women’s relative lack of confidence at parking?
“I’m not completely convinced,” says Andrew Howard. “Learners of both sexes are given the same skills, including carrying out forward and reverse parking, parallel parking, reversing around a corner, turning in the road, a hill start and an emergency stop – although only three will be selected by the tester.
“One problem can be that drivers pass their test in one car, then later drive in another which they don’t find as easy to manoeuvre. There’s also the factor that the parking element of the test doesn’t equate to real life because the tester won’t select a tight space. New drivers who find parking makes them a bit nervous might avoid parallel parking, so they fall out of practice.
“To be honest, I’d rather a new driver went out with mum or dad at night in bad weather to get practice on country roads than worried too much about parallel parking. If you’re no good at something then you can just avoid it, although there are times when it’s a hassle not to be able to do it.”
The difference in male/female spatial skills may influence parking skills, says Mr Howard – but men’s tendency to show off and some women’s tendency to hesitate may be another.
A few extra lessons might be the answer.