Time to Call BS: Why Safety Groups Sued DOT Over Backover Rule Delay

Last week, a consortium of safety groups and advocates decided it had had enough of the delay tactics in publishing a final rule establishing a rear visibility standard and sued the Department of Transportation.

“We are going through the motions of trying to put pressure on the system to cough out the rule,” says attorney Henry Jasny of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “We’ve got a new Secretary of Transportation, and to help him along we figured we’d get the court involved.”

The petitioners before the U.S. Court Of Appeals’ Second Circuit in New York includes three organizations – KidsAndCars, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and Consumers Union – and two New York residents who have backed over their children – Sue Auriemma of Manhasset and pediatrician Greg Gulbransen of Syosset. The 2008 Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act was named for two-year old Cameron Gulbransen, who was killed when his father accidentally backed over him in the family’s driveway. It required the agency to issue a Final Rule amending Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 111, the rearview mirror standard, to, for the first time, define what a driver sees in the rear when backing up to detect pedestrians immediately behind his or her vehicle. The law forced the agency to address a significant design flaw – especially in SUVs – of expanded blind zones caused by the vehicle’s height and bulk. Dramatic pictures from KidsAndCars shows as many as 62 children arrayed directly behind an SUV that would be unseen by driver checking the rearview mirrors.

[flashvideo file=video/KAC_62Children30.flv image="video/KAC_62Children30_Preview.jpg" /]

The original statutory deadline was February 28, 2011, but the Final Rule has been delayed four times, and now is on track to be completed four years after the deadline. In one of his last acts, former Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood sent another letter to Congress delaying the issuance of a Final Rule until January 2015. (The new Secretary of Transportation, former Charlotte, North Carolina Mayor Anthony Foxx, started in July.)

Why are Pedestrian Deaths Rising?

Here’s a traffic safety fact: You don’t really know if an increase in the raw number of pedestrian fatalities really represents an upward trend unless you know how many pedestrians there are and how many miles they’ve walked.

That didn’t stop the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from releasing a micro report on the subject, based on data collected for its annual compendium of crash statistics Traffic Safety Facts. The seven-page report, prepared by the agency’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis noted 4,280 pedestrian deaths -- a four percent increase from 2009 to 2010. It quantified when and where the fatalities took place and who was more likely to die on foot. But the report, Pedestrians, was short on the whys – other than alcohol involvement --and other factors underpinning the data. And the contextual gaps raised the ire of walking advocates, who watched the mainstream press report the raw numbers uncritically.

Wendy Landman, executive director of WalkBoston, a group that advocates for walkable communities, says that two days after NHTSA released Pedestrians, the Centers for Disease Control issued an analysis saying that almost two thirds of Americans are taking regular walks – defined as at least one 10-minute walk per week – and that this group swelled by six percent over 2005. So, does the increase in pedestrian deaths have anything to do with the possibility that more people are walking? Pedestrians did not consider denominators – only numerators.

“What this report doesn’t get into is exposure,” Landman says. “We have one piece of the picture and only one piece. We need better data and more explicative data that could help us figure out what’s going on.”

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