Social media has an unforeseen consequence – parking spot
Social media has an unforeseen consequence – parking spot "squatters". Getty Image

A new menace: parking space hogs

ANYBODY who has ever hunted for a parking space along a city street or in a shopping mall garage knows how the choreography is supposed to work: Driver seeking a precious spot crawls along, sees someone climbing into a car, then pumps fist to celebrate good fortune.

But many fist-pumps are now turning into shaking fists.

The source of the disruption: The person expected to vacate the much-needed parking space instead has hunkered down for some quality time with a smartphone to text, talk or update Facebook.

Brianne Miller was parked recently in downtown San Francisco emailing on her BlackBerry. She heard a honk, looked up and discovered a man in a BMW waiting for her spot. She signalled to him that she would be a few more minutes.

''He flashed an obscene gesture,'' she says.

She smiled and waved, trying not to escalate things.

''He sped off in a huff,'' she adds with a laugh.

''It was a really, really good spot.''

This habit - a kind of digital-age squatting - may lead to parking rage. But those who park and peck on their phones added that they had the best intentions: better to text and talk when their two-tonne car isn't moving than risk being distracted while driving.

''It's safer for me to be parking than driving - not just for me, but for everybody on the roads,'' says Miller, who has sworn off using her cell phone while driving, particularly after she was rear-ended on a highway last year by a driver she suspects was on the phone.

There is no way to know how many people are pausing to use their phones before pulling out of their parking spots.

But safety advocates say they are cheered by stories of people using mobile phones while their cars are not mobile.

In fact, they say this habit might be the first sign that attitudes are shifting around distracted driving, albeit shifting slowly, much as they shifted slowly around drunk driving and using seat belts, and for a handful of reasons, including more states banning drivers from texting and many companies forbidding employees to use their phones while driving.

''We're seeing more and more people pulling over to a safe place to talk and text,'' says Christopher Murphy, director of the California Office of Traffic Safety.

''That's exactly what we want to see them do.''

Not everyone, however, is understanding of the greater-good theory of squatting in a parking spot - not even the police.

Kevin Mercuri, 42, who owns a public relations agency in New York, says he was parked in his Lexus in downtown Manhattan two months ago, emailing a client, when a police officer pulled up.

Mercuri says he was in a legal parking spot but hadn't fed the meter. The officer told him to move along.

''I explained I'd be out in 30 seconds, that I was finishing an email,'' Mercuri recalls.

''The police officer, who seemed to be having a bad day, essentially started yelling at me. He forced me to stop typing. I drove two blocks and parked and finished my email. I was blocking a fire hydrant.''

On weekends, says Mercuri, he drives to the suburbs to do errands at stores like Costco, where parking lots can get packed. He says that if he finds himself using his phone in his car after he shops and sees someone who needs his spot, he'll pull into a fire lane.

But on the weekdays, he says, he's under too much pressure to give up a parking space.

''Monday to Friday, you have to have that hard edge,'' he says.

''On the weekends, I try to find small ways to do good to balance it out.''

On a recent morning in the crowded Noe Valley neighbourhood in San Francisco, a string of people sat parked in cars talking, texting, emailing.

Andy Murdock, parked in front of a bakery, sipped coffee and caught up by phone with his wife; Harold Trinkumas paused in a restricted zone in his BMW and dashed off a work email, or tried to, when a garbage truck honked and nudged him along; Vik Singh sat in his spot and texted a good-luck message to a friend heading into dental surgery. Singh, 31, says he took a vow about a year ago not to text or talk on the phone while driving.

The reason? ''Believe it or not, it was Oprah. She had that whole campaign,'' he says, seeming sheepish.

And Sandy Kokesh, 56, a manager at Wells Fargo, sat in her Toyota while listening in on a work conference call. She needed to be in the neighbourhood for another meeting but arrived early so she could sit quietly in the car and listen to the call rather than do so while driving, which her employer discourages.

She says that she regularly works while parked, sometimes engendering nasty looks from people who want her spot.

''I paid for the time,'' she says, noting that she'd put a full hour on the meter before her call.

But she says she can understand the frustration of those who circle, looking for a spot. Just a week earlier, she says, she'd driven around looking for a spot downtown and thought she'd found one when she saw a woman getting into a car. But she discovered that the woman was on her phone and appeared to be in no rush to leave.

''She said she'd be a few minutes,'' Kokesh says. ''I was frustrated, but I got it.''

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