A Better Way to Spot the Tot: Rear View Cameras!

Four years after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tried to take the public education route around the problem of backovers caused by vehicles with poor rearward visibility, the agency is proposing the first-ever safety standard to stem the flow of pedestrian injury and death.

Friday, NHTSA announced that it was a rearview visibility performance standard, specifying what the driver should be able to see, which would most likely compel automakers to install rear-mounted cameras and in-board vehicle displays in all new vehicles by 2014. The agency was rushing to meet a statutory February 28, 2011 deadline for a Final Rule.

No small measure of thanks is due to the persistence of Janette Fennell and her advocacy organization, KidsAndCars.org. Longtime activist Fennell began collecting data on backover injury and death more than a decade ago. At the time, NHTSA refused to acknowledge the problem because nearly all of the incidents occurred in private driveways rather than on public roads.

“We have had the honor of working with some of the most courageous parents in America throughout this entire process” Fennell said in a news release.  “These phenomenal families have somehow found the strength to tell their unthinkable stories over and over again about how a backover tragedy befell their family.  They have worked in honor of their children to ensure that other families do not have to experience the devastating loss of a child when a loving relative was behind the wheel.  This is a huge triumph for all American families but especially for those special and rare individuals who chose to channel their grief into policy change.”

In the new Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the agency estimated that each year 292 die and another 18,000 are injured – 3,000 seriously – by drivers backing up. Children under age five account for about 44 percent of the fatalities. Further the agency found that if the vehicle is a pick-up truck, a minivan or an SUV, a backover is four times more likely to result in a fatality.

According to KidsAndCars’ data, at least 50 children are backed over by vehicles every week; 48 require emergency room treatment; and two children are killed. In more than 70 percent of cases involving children, the driver is a direct relative of the victim. Very young children are disproportionally affected by many vehicles’ poor rearward visibility. KidsAndCars.org data reports that 80 percent of the fatalities involve children age 3 and under; 43 percent of those are 1 year-old.

KidsAnd Cars call backovers “the predictable consequence of a child following a parent out to the driveway and standing behind the vehicle without the parent’s knowledge. The scenario plays out so frequently that KidsAndCars.org have dubbed this situation as the ‘bye-bye syndrome.’”

The proposal defines the rear area to be made visible as “a width of 10 feet (5 feet to either side of a rearward extension of the vehicle’s centerline) and a length of 20 feet extending backward from a transverse vertical plane tangent to the rearmost point on the rear bumper,” as this “encompasses the highest risk area for children and other pedestrians to be struck.” As part of the compliance test, child-sized objects within that area must be visible to drivers when they are driving backward.

While the standard does not define how manufacturers will provide this rear view, the agency noted that video systems would be the most effective of the current technology.

This rule is a radical break from the agency’s past resistance to regulating vehicle safety in the driveway. Even as Fennell raised the public’s awareness of the serious and frequency of the issue and urged NHTSA to take regulatory action, the agency focused on an education campaign. “Spot the Tot” debuted in 2004, under then-NHTSA administrator Nicole Nason. The program was funded, in part, by General Motors.

In 2005, a provision in the federal highway spending bill, SAFETEA-LU, required NHTSA to do a backover study and begin collecting data about non-traffic events. In 2007, Congress passed the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act, named for two-year old Cameron Gulbransen, who was killed when his father backed over him in the family’s driveway. It required the agency to issue a final rule amending the rearview mirror standard to improve the ability of a driver to detect pedestrians in the area immediately behind his or her vehicle.

In 2009, the agency published an ANRPM, which discussed regulatory approaches ranging from requiring improvements on all light vehicles to just the types of vehicles responsible for the most serious incidents, to those with blind spots that exceeded a specified size. The agency also discussed how a new rule would regulate performance for mirrors, sensors, and cameras. Manufacturers favored a rule limited to particular types of vehicles. Safety advocates argued for the standard to apply to all light vehicles.

NHTSA is proposing a phase-in schedule of 10 percent compliance by September 2013; 40 percent before September 2014; and 100 percent of the vehicles manufactured after September 1, 2014.