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Navigating street parking and safety

Cars parked on street in city
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Most people rely on a personal vehicle to get around and it’s expected that more Americans will travel, return to work, start college and potentially move to new locations in the year ahead. For some drivers, moving and traveling will mean learning how to navigate unfamiliar places and figuring out street parking. This may be especially true for students bringing a car to campus for the first time, as well as drivers who don’t have much driving experience.

Although street parking may sound like a trivial task, drivers should understand how to keep their vehicle safe when parking on the street or in a public parking area. It is also helpful to know how you can find good parking spots wherever you go and how you can avoid parking tickets.

Key statistics on parking

If you have a car, you might park without thinking twice most of the time. However, you might be surprised to learn that parking can present major challenges for some drivers. Here are some staggering statistics about the burdens of parking in the U.S.:

  • On average, Americans spend 17 hours per year searching for parking.
  • It costs about $345 per driver in wasted time, fuel and emissions to find a parking spot.
  • Overpaying for parking costs Americans more than $20 billion a year, or $97 per driver.
  • 40% of all car accidents causing physical damage occur during parking.
  • The average car spends 95% of its time parked.
  • Nearly two-thirds of U.S. drivers have felt stressed while trying to find a parking spot.
  • 63% of U.S. drivers said they have avoided driving to malls, airports, sports centers and other places because of parking challenges.

Possible damage

When you park your car on the street, there is always the possibility of it being subject to damage, even if you’re parked correctly and away from passing traffic. Here are some of the most common ways that your vehicle can get damaged when you are parked on the street:

  • Someone hits your car: Cars that are parked on the street can easily get hit by other vehicles. For example, another driver might accidentally bump into your car when attempting to park next to it. Or, a driver might accidentally get too close to your vehicle and hit one of the side mirrors.
  • Theft: Parking on the street could mean a higher chance of your vehicle being broken into, especially if valuable items are visible. For example, if you leave your laptop, purse or cellphone on the seat, your property may be at risk of being stolen. In addition, your catalytic converter could get stolen, particularly if you have a new car. These parts are generally easy to saw off in a few minutes and are made of valuable metals that could be resold by thieves.
  • Vandalism: Vandalism is another risk when parking on the street. Anybody could key the door, smash a window or use spray paint to deface the exterior.
  • Natural elements: Cars that are parked outside are at risk of weather-related damage. For example, if you park your car on the street and a hailstorm sweeps through the area, the roof and hood of your car could get seriously damaged.
  • Parking tickets: Many drivers have received a parking ticket at one point or another. If you park at a two-hour meter and come back 15 minutes after the meter expires, you might find a brightly-colored envelope noting a ticket on your windshield. Depending on where your car is parked, parking tickets can be extremely expensive.

What will my insurance cover?

If your car gets damaged while it’s parked on the street, don’t panic — your car insurance company may cover it. Here is what your policy generally will and will not pay for:

  • Car damage: If your car gets hit while it’s parked, insurance may cover it. If you can prove who is responsible for the damage, the at-fault driver’s insurance should cover the damage. If the at-fault driver is uninsured, your collision or uninsured motorist coverage might be used to pay for the repairs.
  • Stolen catalytic converter: If your catalytic converter is stolen, comprehensive insurance could help cover it and pay for a new one. To deter potential thieves, it’s a good idea to set your car alarm to react to vibrations or install a catalytic converter protection device, which makes the part more difficult and time-consuming to steal.
  • Stolen personal items: Personal items that are stolen from your vehicle will typically be covered by your renters or homeowners insurance policy, rather than auto insurance. However, keep in mind that valuable items, like electronics, usually have a low coverage limit. In these cases, purchasing an endorsement for additional coverage could help cover loss or damage to your higher-value items.
  • Towing: As a vehicle owner, one common worry is having your car towed for illegal or improper parking. If your car is towed due to improper parking, your insurance policy won’t cover it. You would be responsible for finding the tow lot and paying to get your car out of impound.
  • Parking tickets: Parking tickets are not covered by car insurance. Additionally, getting a parking ticket won’t typically impact the cost of your car insurance. Just keep in mind that unpaid parking tickets could affect your driver’s license status.

Where can I park?

Drivers who are not used to street parking should take some time to review common road signs, which can help you avoid making a parking mistake. If you are parked at a meter, it is also important to understand which hours the meter is in effect and its time limits so you don’t get a ticket. Here are a few things to know:

Check for signs

Before you park your car, the first thing you should do is look around at the signage in the area. You will probably see some signs that provide more details about where you can park and for how long, and which areas are off-limits. Below is a list of common parking-related signs you might come across:

  • No parking zone: A no parking zone is exactly what it sounds like — an area where you are not allowed to park, under any circumstances. If you park in a no parking zone, you will likely get a ticket and you could have your car towed if you are blocking traffic or a driveway. No parking zone signage is typically written in red.
  • Tow away zone: A tow away zone is similar to a no parking zone, but it guarantees that your car will get towed if you park there and you are caught. Some tow away zones are permanent, but they might also be temporary, such as a street where roadwork is being performed.
  • Yellow curb or fire hydrant: If you spot a yellow curb, it means you are not allowed to park there. Also, remember that parking near fire hydrants can be tricky. Usually, you must park at least 15 feet away from a fire hydrant, otherwise your car could get towed. The parking restrictions are to account for safety in the event of a fire, where access to the hydrant is necessary.
  • Parking zones: Parking zone signs usually indicate where drivers can legally park. You might see signs for 30-minute parking, one-hour parking or parking that is only allowed on certain days, or at specific times. These signs are usually written in green.
  • Freight zone: A freight zone is reserved for commercial trucks that deliver goods to businesses. Typically, drivers are prohibited from parking in freight zones during certain times, which are noted on the sign. As long as you are not parked within that time frame, you should be able to legally park your car there.
  • Loading zone: A loading zone is an area where drivers are allowed to pick up and drop off items or passengers, and therefore, cars cannot be parked there long term. For example, you might see loading zone signs outside airport terminals or hospitals. Sometimes, loading zones are marked for specific dates and times only, outside of which you can generally park there.

Check for meters

In some areas, your only option for parking is to leave your car at a meter. Besides the fact that you have to pay to park, meters can be risky for drivers who do not pay close attention to the signage. When you park at a meter, here are some things to look for:

  • Holiday parking: Most meters are free on holidays and often on Sundays, so check before you pay. This information is usually posted on the meter itself or on a sign nearby.
  • Meter hours: Some meters are free after a certain time. For example, a meter might only require payment between the hours of 8 a.m. to  8 p.m. Knowing this can help you save money and avoid paying when you don’t have to.
  • Check the expiration time: Before you leave your car, check the meter to see when your time expires. Depending on your location, you might be able to use a parking app to add money to your meter if you can’t get back to your car before the time is up.
  • Get a parking pass: If you live in an area where metered street parking is your only option, check to see if your city offers a monthly or annual parking pass for residents. You might pay more upfront, but you can probably save a significant amount of money in the long run.

How to park

If you aren’t a frequent driver, it’s easy to forget exactly how to park safely and efficiently. For drivers who want to brush up on their parking skills, here is what you need to know:

  • Parallel parking: Most drivers can agree that parallel parking is not always an easy task. If your car is not equipped with parking assist technology, here’s what to do:
  1. Find the right spot and avoid squeezing into a spot where your car does not easily fit.
  2. Pull up parallel to the car you’re going to park behind.
  3. Put the car in reverse and back up until the middle of your car is aligned with the other car’s rear bumper.
  4. Cut the wheel and get as close to the curb as possible.
  5. Gradually straighten out the car, leaving equal room between your car, and the cars in front and back of you.
  • Park with traffic: Legally, you must park your car in the direction that traffic is moving. If you park on the side of the road that goes against traffic, you could get a ticket.
  • Don’t double park: Avoid double parking at all costs, which happens when you park parallel to a car that’s already parked and block them in. Even if you are leaving your car for a few minutes, it’s always best to find a legal spot.
  • Park close if possible: Whenever you can, it’s a good idea to park close to your location. That way, you can keep an eye on your vehicle. Before you get out of the car, it may help to fold in your side mirrors. You should also make sure your lights are turned off and double check that your sunroof and all windows are closed.

Parking apps

If you have a smartphone, consider downloading parking apps to make the process more seamless. Here are several free parking apps that are available for both iOS and Android devices:

  • Park Mobile: The Park Mobile app makes it easy to pay for parking. When you park at a designated Park Mobile spot, you simply enter your spot zone number on the app, set your time, enter your license plate number and pay. You can also add time through the app without going back to your car.
  • BestParking: With BestParking, you can find parking spots, compare prices, reserve spots, prepay for parking and more. The company claims you can save up to 50% on parking costs when you use the app.
  • SpotHero: SpotHero is one of the most popular apps for finding parking in major cities. You can book a spot on an hourly or monthly basis, and there is also an option to reserve airport parking.
  • SpotAngels: If you want to find free parking in your city, SpotAngels is a helpful app to have. You can search for free parking spots and garages and find parking deals to save money in paid lots.
  • Passport Parking: With Passport Parking, you can find and reserve parking spots, and pay through your phone. You can even get a notification sent to your phone before your parking session expires and add more money if you need to extend the time.

Protect your car

Parking on the street could expose your car to more damage risks, but there are plenty of ways to keep your vehicle safe if you can’t park in a garage. Below are a few tips:

  • Protect your car against the elements: Cars can easily get damaged by different elements, so it helps to pay attention to weather and other factors. For example, if you need to park outside during a windstorm, avoid parking under large trees that could potentially fall onto your car. Keeping your car free of debris and washing it often can also help prevent your vehicle from sustaining damage from elements such as pollen.
  • Keep personal items out of view: If you leave personal items in the car, they may face a risk of getting stolen. You could move items to a covered trunk, put them in the glove box or avoid storing valuable items in your car altogether.
  • Make sure the car is locked: Before you leave your parked car, double check that the car is locked and that all the windows are rolled up.
  • Add or activate your car alarm: If your car has an alarm, activate it before you leave the area. If your car does not have an alarm, consider installing one for protection, especially while your car is parked in public areas.

Depending on where you are going, parking on the street might be your only option. However, street parking is generally very safe. There are also many things you can do to help protect your car while it’s parked on a public street or lot. If an incident takes place, such as your vehicle being hit while it is parked, it’s likely that your insurance policy will cover it. Before you park, make sure to check the street signs and park in legal spots to avoid getting ticketed or towed.

Written by
Elizabeth Rivelli
Insurance Contributor
Elizabeth Rivelli is a contributing insurance writer for Bankrate and has years of experience writing for insurance domains such as The Simple Dollar, Coverage.com and NextAdvisor, among others
Edited by
Insurance Editor