How do I develop spatial awareness for my car?
May 2, 2011 9:50 AM   Subscribe

I'm learning to drive and I need your tips on sensing car position.

So I'm learning to drive (finally!), and it's surprisingly fun so far! My biggest problem is that I have a poor sense of where the boundaries of my car are relative to other objects. I'm okay staying within lanes on the road, but when it comes to parking I always end up quite lopsided. I never quite know when to start turning into the parking stall, and when I'm backing out I also get nervous about turning too early and scraping an adjacent car.

On the road, someone told me that if I keep the lower edge of the driver's side window aligned with the left-hand road markings, that should keep me in good lane positioning. Does anyone else have similar tips for knowing where the front/back/passenger side of the car is in relation to outside objects? Or for getting a better feel of the car's dimensions? Your help is much appreciated!
posted by mossicle to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
It's really just practice -- for example, your alignment thing -- wouldn't that depend on the height of the car and the height and shape of the windshield and the height of the person driving? If any of those things were different, then the car would be in a different place, so it can't lead to optimal lane placement in all cases.

Adjust your mirrors properly and know what's going around you. Look ahead at the car in front of you when you're driving, and practice and pay attention. That's all it is.
posted by brainmouse at 10:11 AM on May 2, 2011

I learned to drive so many years ago that this may, or may not, be valid on today's cars.

Back then, the hood on many cars was raised in the center (i.e., going down the center of the hood). I was told that if I kept that little bump aligned with the right edge of the road (and the white stripe at the right hand of the road), I'd be in good shape re: lane position.
posted by apartment dweller at 10:11 AM on May 2, 2011

Just practice. Practice practice practice. I baaaarely passed my driving test when I was 16 because I couldn't parallel park. There was no need to when I was living in the land of driveways and acres-big parking lots. And then I moved to Chicago, where the only option, 99% of the time, is to parallel park. A couple weeks of that, and now I can parallel park like a mofo.

Find a low-traffic street somewhere (where you can parallel park and there are already a few cars) and just do it, over and over and over. Trust that, eventually, you WILL be able to park. It just takes time. There's no trick involved.

(And don't worry too much about hitting the cars. Bumpers are there for a reason and, while parking, you're going at speeds that wouldn't even injure a baby. Not that you should intentionally try to ram into things, but if you do tap someone else, it's not the end of the world. And if you do damage something, for christsakes leave your contact info. OK, lecture over.)
posted by phunniemee at 10:15 AM on May 2, 2011

Oh, I just realized you're not necessarily talking about parallel parking. In a regular old parking spot, start by taking really wide turns until you get the hang of it. And go slowly. And don't worry about looking like a moron (because no one cares). Happy parking!
posted by phunniemee at 10:17 AM on May 2, 2011

Your side mirrors should be pointed at your blind spot! Personally, I like to have a continuous overlapping view for my peripheral vision thru the view in the side mirror to the rear view mirror. Still do a head-turning check for traffic when changing lanes, but the side mirror can help, for instance, keeping track of a nearby miata when you're driving an F150 truck.

don't look too close to the front of the car. It's easier to watch further ahead - less weaving within your late results.

also, if you can, try setting some milk jugs with a bit of water in them or something out in a parking lot to get a feel for where your tires are. it's easier on the car than learning it by grinding against curbs when trying to parallel park.
posted by rmd1023 at 10:17 AM on May 2, 2011

When pulling into a perpendicular parking space, I was told to stay as far to the other side of the road opposite the parking space as I could before making the turn, then to (briefly) look into the space before cutting the wheel hard. (The car should be moving very slowly when you do this.) As noted before, practice makes it easier--start learning in a place where there are no other cars in the adjacent parking spaces.

After a while it becomes second nature as you gain confidence in knowing where the boundaries of the vehicle are. When I get a rental car, I have to re-learn the boundaries, but it goes quickly because it gets easier with experience.
posted by apartment dweller at 10:22 AM on May 2, 2011

2nding - most people have far too much of their side mirrors looking at the side of their cars. Have them just B A R E L Y showing you the side of your own car, and showing a lower slice of the rear than your rear-view. The rear-view should show you things that are exactly behind you, the side mirrors should show you the things that are OUT to the side, and should be aimed down low enough you can see short objects (kids, low-slung cars, etc.).

When I was 16, I recall practicing in an EMPTY parking lot to see if I could get into a parking space straight. If you can set out jugs, cones, or the like and master that skill, you'll soon be able to handle any skill that realistically will come up.

The good news is that things USUALLY look closer than they are. Don't get overconfident, but as a rule I'll look from my hood to the bumper of a car in front of me and think "I'm maybe a foot away from that car," and then when I get out and look (or see a window that I can use as a mirror), it's more like 3-4 feet.

It's a skill that seems very difficult when you're inexperienced but practicing does really make it second nature.
posted by randomkeystrike at 10:43 AM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

And don't worry about looking like a moron (because no one cares)

And anyone who does care is a moron.

As long as you are able to maneuver the car into the space without damaging anyone/anything or preventing other drivers access to their vehicles, you have successfully parked. And short of hitting a pedestrian, you can always take a do-over if you need to.
posted by Sara C. at 10:44 AM on May 2, 2011

I have been driving for over 10 years and I still mess up stuff like regular old non-parallel parking - it's hard! I agree that it's going to take a lot of practice to start getting "car awareness" - until then, don't be ashamed if have to take a couple tries at pulling into or backing out of a space. I still do from time to time!

As for dimensional "tricks" - these seem heavily car-dependent to me.
posted by muddgirl at 10:45 AM on May 2, 2011

Some helpful illustrations (and a previous question) on parking.
posted by carsonb at 11:09 AM on May 2, 2011

Best answer: Your side mirrors should be pointed at your blind spot!

Which of course moves the blind spot. Here's what I learned to do (learned it here on MetaFilter): Adjust your left outside mirror so that when you touch your head to the window, you can see the side of the car. That moves your blind spot up to almost into your peripheral vision when your head is in a normal position. Now all you have to do when changing lanes to the left is look in your left outside mirror and turn your head left to make sure the lane is clear. If you have it adjusted so you can always see the side of the car, your blind spot is too far back, and it's tough to turn your head that far. If you need to see the side of the car when you're backing up, move your head over.

The right mirror should be adjusted to achieve a similar effect, but I don't know of a simple way to describe that. Also remember that in most cars, things in that mirror are closer than they look, because it's slightly convex.

When parking, it helps to remember that your front wheels always make a bigger arc than the rear ones. That's why you have to make a wide turn when heading into a parking space. If you didn't, you'd bring the rear of your car too close to the side of the space.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 11:24 AM on May 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Mostly, it just takes practice. One thing would help is if you could set up something that you could bump into without damaging it or your car. The passenger side front corner will be the hardest to deal with so taking tight left hand turns into tight parking spot will be the most difficult. Backing up seems to be the next most difficult thing for people to get a handle on.

There are a couple of ways to tackle this. You could set up some kind of cardboard wall that you could rub with your car and see how close you can get before you hit it and see what that looks like from the driver's seat. You could put some broom handles in some cones or plant them in the ground at the edge of a parking lot. You could get some friends to stand at the back and give you hand signals while you (slowly) back into them or just stand at the corners.

You should try pulling into some tight spaces or just get as close as you are comfortable with and then get out and look at where your car is. You'll usually be surprised by how much space is really there.

The little spacial tricks and lining things up are highly dependent on the car and the person (height, driving position, etc) but you should be able to develop some for you and your car.

Good luck!
posted by VTX at 12:44 PM on May 2, 2011

It's not a Prius you're driving, is it? I'm right now sitting in. Mini dealership trading my 2010 Priusfor a 2010 Clubman. The bad visibility in the front is something I couldn't overcome. In 7 months of driving the car, and after 25 years of driving all types of cars, I could never sense the front dimensions. And I know from experience that it might take a couple of months to get that sense. Not 7.

You'll be fine with practice!
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 12:48 PM on May 2, 2011

Don't feel bad if you never get it - I am fine with actual driving, but when it comes to parking I always think I am way closer to objects (other cars, poles, etc) than I actually am. I avoid tight spaces and when in doubt I proceed super slow so I can't really damage anything.

It got better with practice - especially when I would feel like I was close to a car (say trying to parallel park, I think I am about to hit the car in front of me) and I would then get out of the car and see how much actual room I had.

I got better, but I cannot get to the level of, say, my dad - he pulls in and out of these tight spaces and just *knows* if he does or doesn't have enough room. I will often be wrong by a foot or more.
posted by mrs. taters at 1:02 PM on May 2, 2011

My take: time. Practice, and time.

In addition, you could try two things:
(1) An "aggressive" driving course, on a track, where you get to find out where the limits of your car are without having to worry about breaking things that aren't there for that purpose.
(2) A bit off-beat: a remote-controlled car. Does wonders for figuring out how the steering wheel needs to be turned to get a car into a tight space, and back out again. You can get a small, cheap one, as long as the control unit has an actual wheel, and not a joystick.
posted by labberdasher at 1:28 PM on May 2, 2011

There used to be a product called "curb feelers," which was a pair of springy antenna-like things that mounted on the front corners of a car. When they encountered an obstacle, they made a distinctive noise that was supposed to warn the driver that there was something there.

WAIT - did I say "used to be?" You can still get them.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 2:07 PM on May 2, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the input everyone. I agree that practice will be the only way I can get a feel for these things, and I really like the idea of setting up flimsy barriers as a safe way of practicing. If I can get my hands on some fish-eye mirrors, those sound perfect!
posted by mossicle at 2:24 PM on May 2, 2011

To keep the car centered, look at the road and look for the center of the two lines. In ye olden days, this would be where the black stripe from oil leaks would be. Regardless, aim the car so that your ass rides just to the left of the imaginary center line. This eliminates any parallax errors with lining up fenders and other such nonsense. It will also help with parking and general feeling the size of the car.

When parking horizontally, like in a parking lot, do not make the mistake so many people do, and approach the spot from the center or even left of the parking lane. Be as far to the right of the lane you are in, so that when you turn left into the spot, the car is as close to straight as possible. And vice versa for a spot on your right. Move to the left and complete the turn early so that you are mostly going straight when you actually enter the stall. This allows you to use the above trick to get the car centered.

For other maneuvering, it helps to visualize the rear wheels and where they will track when you turn the front wheels. After all, you can tell the front wheels what to do, but the rear wheels will just follow.
posted by gjc at 4:38 PM on May 2, 2011

I actually found it helpful to play with little toy cars and see how some of the angles work, especially for when to start turning while backing out of parking spots.
posted by songs about trains at 4:45 PM on May 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I just learned to drive (as in I got my license 7 months ago) which doesn't make the most experienced driver but I probably have learned this stuff (and from truly excellent instructors) the most recently. Also, I usually drive a car that is basically a cop car (in shape and color) and parking/driving it is no easy feat, even for my parents.

The following is the way that my very non-traditional driving school taught to adjust your mirrors - it's a little non-normal but it's awesome. No real blind spot - with a quick rearview-side mirror-out the side window glance (no need to even your shoulders) you've got an awesome idea of what's around you. While sitting comfortably in the driver's seat, tilt your head so that your ear touches your shoulder (start, for our purposes, going to the left). Then, with your head still there, adjust your mirror so that you see only a sliver of the car and slightly more sky than ground. Now, repeat to the right. You don't see your car (or the curb) in the side mirror but all 'blind spots' are taken care of between your side mirror and your rearview mirror. If you do it that way, though, it doesn't really help for parking.

The main tip for perpendicular parking I got was 'go slow, turn fast', and for me it was probably a 4-5 month journey of being really embarassed when I sometimes got stuck blocking traffic while I tried to park. But like I said, really difficult car. Our other car (small SUV) is SO much easier.

My driver's ed had us find our reference points on the car, and put stickers on them. Basically, you just line up the car with a long line right in front of the car and on the right side (this can be done in steps in a deserted parking lot) and then you put a small sticker where, for instance, the line 'hits' the driver and passenger doors when it's actually right in front of your car (if that makes any sense), and then another one on the dashboard when a line on the right side of your car appears to hit it. It really helped me visualize before I got a sense of the car. I also found the reference point on the front of my car where the left side of my lane should hit it, and still use that a lot. My driver's ed said, for lane positioning, to imagine that you're putting your right knee in the middle of the lane. Works great in normal-sized cars, and might work well for you, but didn't work for me in my ridiculous car.

I feel ridiculous giving tips on this since I'm still a beginner, but I've heard the 'tips' pretty recently and it's nowhere near innate for me yet so hopefully the rules I learned will help you too! I'd be happy to scan in the appropriate pages of my driver's ed workbook if you're at all interested, as well - like I said, unorthodox school with great reputation/record which I found so be actually awesome. And I don't think most people find driver's ed to be awesome, so that's something.
posted by R a c h e l at 6:59 PM on May 2, 2011

Also, pay attention to bumps on the road, like the edge where the road turns to gravel. Drive onto that edge and pay attention to how it feels and how it looks; it will help you learn the dimensions of your vehicle.
posted by theora55 at 8:59 PM on May 2, 2011

Best answer: It's helpful to know where the wheels of your car are at any given time. Gather up some aluminum cans and go to an empty parking lot somewhere. Spread out your cans all over the parking lot, and drive around with your windows down. Try to crunch the cans, first with your left front tire, then your right front, then the rear tires. Given enough time, this will give you an idea of where your wheels are, and this will help ingrain in your mind where the ends of your car are.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:22 AM on May 3, 2011

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