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Most drive to avoid parallel parking challenge

GRAND FORKS -- The all-glass front offers Dakota Harvest Bakery workers Mike McCullough and Blue Weber a clear view of parallel-parking efforts on North Third Street in downtown Grand Forks.

Asked if such efforts can be amusing, they simultaneously burst into laughter.

"It's a spectator sport," McCullough says.

Adds Weber: "I'll admit it -- I usually cheer for a fender-bender."

An intrepid reporter and equally intrepid photographer weren't able to witness parallel-parking ineptitude. Mostly, they witnessed PP avoidance.

For example, 47-year-old Erik Harris of Grand Forks opted for a diagonal parking spot across-and-down the street rather than the opening at the bakery's front door.

"Parallel parking is the final option," Harris said, with no shame in his voice. "I find a different way if I can."

That seems to be a popular strategy, as drivers would crawl up to a potential parking spot, eye it, but then spot a wider and less arduous opening down the block -- or the next block. One middle-aged woman in a cream-colored Buick ignored a parallel parking spot to make almost a 180-degree turn to park diagonally -- in a handicap spot. The Buick showed no handicap tag.

Rarely required

PP avoidance appears to be a product of a shortage of practice and a shortage of necessity. Shopping is usually done at malls, with their vast -- and uncomplicated -- parking lots. Zoning regulations require off-street parking for businesses, schools and churches. Parking ramps also are stress-free, even if there might be a charge.

The result is that PP skills mostly are required only around large apartment complexes and downtown. And downtown has more anxiety-free diagonal parking than PP spots.

If practice makes perfect, no practice makes for less than perfect.

However, some people, like 23-year-old Danielle Beyer of Grand Forks, had a motivation for learning the art. Hers was that the skill would allow her to park closer to her University of North Dakota classrooms.

"I don't know if people have noticed, but it gets cold here in the winters," Beyer said. "I don't like walking a long ways from the parking lots in winter.

"Besides, my mom made me learn how to parallel park when I got my license at 14."

Mother clearly knows best. Beyer effortlessly maneuvered her 2000 Trailblazer into a tight spot. She cranked the wheel, slid back, moved forward and that was it. No further back-and-forth jockeying was needed.

Her vehicle was 6 inches from the curb and her tires were parallel seemingly to microscopic proportions.

For Kelli Roche of Grand Forks, necessity was the mother of invention.

"I used to be horrid at it," she said. "I'd park five miles away so I wouldn't have to do it. But I live downtown with its limited parking, so I was forced to learn."

Roche, 27, displayed her vast improvement as she made a brief stop at the Grand Forks County Office Building downtown. She credits repetition for maneuvering her 2007 Ford Edge into the concrete stall.

"I've learned to do it by hitting a lot of curbs over the years," she said.

Have no fear

Grand Forks driver's training instructors Bob Zimney, Bill Landry and Keith Ronkowski -- all with more than 30 years of experience -- were consulted for advice for the young and old.

Zimney said the first lesson is to shed the fear. "The kids are scared by stories told by their parents about the difficulty," he said. "I guarantee them that it's a lot easier than what they are led to believe."

Landry said the inherited fear is misplaced. For one thing, vehicles were bigger and harder to manage a generation ago. Plus, they lacked some of today's technology, such as power steering, that makes vehicles easier to maneuver.

Each instructor has his own way of teaching the craft, mostly with just subtle differences.

Ronkowski breaks the process into four parts:

1. Pull up even with the parked vehicle, about 2 feet away.

2. Go in reverse until the driver is even with the back wheel or bumper of the parked vehicle and stop.

3. Turn the wheel a half-turn toward the curb, which puts the car moving at a 45-degree angle. When within 1 foot from the curb, turn the wheel two complete turns the opposite way.

4. Straighten wheels and drive ahead.

North Dakota student drivers have it easier than their counterparts in Minnesota. East of the Red River, teens need to parallel park between four cones or flags. Hitting any of them means a failed test. In North Dakota, the test is conducted with just a front vehicle but no vehicle or obstacle in the rear. So, test-takers have unlimited room to make the backward maneuver.

"In the North Dakota test, you really don't need to parallel park if you don't want to," Ronkowski said. "All the testers want to know is if the driver handles the car in reverse and does the right checks.

"As long as you don't drive on top of the curb, you're OK. If you're on the curb, you're off the roadway and you flunk."

Ronkowski was telling this to A.J. Wilson, a 15-year-old from Buxton who was on her first day of driver's training. She showed remarkable improvement from her first PP attempt to her sixth try.

"Parallel parking was one of my big concerns because I didn't want to get in a crash," she said. "But it was much easier than I thought.

"The hardest thing for me on the first day was driving downtown because the roads are so skinny."

Auto-parking available

If all the training fails, there's the option of buying (expensive) cars programmed to park themselves. The equipment is called auto-parking and is available on several luxury models.

But if everyone had auto-parking, what would the bakery employees do for entertainment?

Weber, the bakery counter worker, insisted that he enjoys parallel parking. But co-worker McCullough had a quick rebuttal: "Yeah, but he takes a skateboard to work."