Every year, some 300 people—many younger than five or older than 70—are killed when a motorist accidentally backs over them, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). In addition, another 18,000 are injured. Making it more tragic, many are the children of the drivers. As a parent, it's hard to imagine anything more devastating.
Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Act.
In 2002, Greg Gulbransen accidentally backed his BMW X5 sport-utility vehicle over his two-year-old son, Cameron, killing him. The Long Island pediatrician helped create a political movement that resulted in a law that promises to help reduce similar tragedies. In 2008, the U.S. Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed, the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Act. The law requires that almost all cars, pickups, and SUVs be equipped with devices to warn drivers of objects behind the vehicle. The law doesn't specify the types of devices. More than likely, video cameras, sonar-, radar-, or infrared-based sensors, and larger or additional mirrors will be employed. The law says that all vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of less than 10,000 pounds—which includes almost all cars, trucks and SUVs—be equipped with devices that detect people in what some call the "void area" or "blind zone" behind the vehicle. (The void area or blind zone is where the driver can't see the pavement: It could be as far as 50 feet behind some vehicles.)
The law says that the Secretary of Transportation must issue new rules by early 2011 and vehicles must comply within four years of that. The rules and compliance date are still being debated. To read the entire 128-page "advance notice of proposed rulemaking".
Power Window Provisions.
The new law also requires power-operated windows and doors to sense the presence of a hand or neck in its path then quickly stop or reverse directions to prevent children (and others) from being injured by fast-closing power windows and doors. In addition, there's a provision that expands the types of vehicles that require a shift interlock, which prevents the vehicle from being shifted out of park unless the foot brake is depressed.
Rearview video cameras and sonar-based warning systems are currently available on many current high-end vehicles. If all current vehicles were equipped with such devices, back-over fatalities would not be significantly reduced, NHTSA research shows. Perhaps no more than one-quarter would be prevented, said a NHTSA document. One interpretation: To make a meaningful reduction in back-over accident injuries, vehicles may have to be equipped with multiple cameras, as well as sonar, radar, or infrared warning devices—and perhaps larger or additional mirrors.
Consequences and Costs.
There are always consequences, either unintended or unavoidable, to every action. The addition of cameras and other systems will add cost—around $200 per camera and $100 for other systems, says NHTSA—and complexity to every vehicle. The price of repairing parking-lot-speed accidents will rise substantially when video cameras and other systems, which are built into the bumpers, are damaged. Still, some will argue: What is a child's life worth?
As a certified driving instructor, I assert that the worst unintended consequence may be that drivers will too heavily rely on rear-view cameras and sensors when backing up. I have tested rear-view cameras from every major manufacturer. Some are superb, offering a near 180-degree field of vision behind the vehicle. Others do nothing that a quick look behind the car before climbing behind the wheel wouldn't better accomplish. Most current rear-view cameras offer little or no peripheral vision: They would not reveal a pedestrian, much less a bicyclist, moving into the vehicle's path. Also, NHTSA agrees that all video systems are essentially worthless when water, snow or dirt gets on the lens. In addition, it's my experience that video cameras are of little value when the sun is low on the horizon. Also, the sonar-based warning systems give so many false warnings that it's tempting to ignore their beeping.
There's no arguing that rear-view cameras and sensor systems can be a good tool: A screwdriver is a good tool, but not if it's used as a chisel. Safe backing will still require the driver to look behind the vehicle before climbing into it then check side mirrors and turn his body and head to look out the rear window. Some law-enforcement driving schools teach highway patrol and police officers that unless they are looking out the rear window, the vehicle must be motionless: The patrol car must be stopped before the officer can glance at the side mirror or out the side window. Holders of Commercial Driver's Licenses counter that they must be able to back safely using only the mirrors.
Perhaps yet-to-be developed (or matured) technology will come forward that will prevent tragic back-over deaths similar to the one that took Cameron Gulbransen's life. In the meantime, always take the necessary precautions before backing out, and never merely rely on cameras and sensors.