Feds Eye Mandatory Backup Cameras

Edward Niedermeyer
by Edward Niedermeyer

Don’t you hate how modern crash test standards and bunker-inspired design trends conspire to make it impossible to see out the back of most vehicles? So does the government agency that requires those crash-test standards. According to a new proposed rule [full proposal in PDF here]:

NHTSA is proposing to expand the required field of view for all passenger cars, trucks, multipurpose passenger vehicles, buses, and low-speed vehicles rated at 10,000 pounds or less, gross vehicle weight. Specifically, NHTSA is proposing to specify an area immediately behind each vehicle that the driver must be able to see when the vehicle’s transmission is in reverse. It appears that, in the near term, the only technology available with the ability to comply with this proposal would be a rear visibility system that includes a rear-mounted video camera and an in-vehicle visual display. Adoption of this proposal would significantly reduce fatalities and injuries caused by backover crashes involving children, persons with disabilities, the elderly, and other pedestrians.

But how many of the 228 annual fatalities blamed on backover incidents in light-duty vehicles would really have been solved by a backup camera, and how many were caused by plain stupidity or negligence? After all, even NHTSA admits that the proposed fix might not make a difference…

But the government can’t just do nothing about the stupidity of its citizens. So rather than come to the understanding that government is incapable of protecting irresponsible citizens from themselves,

the agency has tentatively concluded that providing the driver with additional visual information about what is directly behind the driver’s vehicle is the only effective near-term solution at this time to reduce the number of fatalities and injuries associated with backover crashes

Because it’s not the best solution, dammit, it’s the only solution. And armed with that “tentative” conclusion, NHTSA’s boffins set about looking for a “tentative” solution:

We tentatively concluded that an area with 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 encompasses the highest risk area for children and other pedestrians to be struck. Therefore, we are proposing that test objects of a particular size within that area must be visible to drivers when they are driving backward.

Needless to say, no vehicle is capable of providing that kind of rearward vision without some kind of video or sensor system… at least not in this age of bloated C-pillars and gunslit windows. As a result, it seems that starting in 2014, every vehicle will need to be equipped with some form of backup camera system. NHTSA envisions the following phase-in:

  • 0% of the vehicles manufactured before September 1, 2012;
  • 10% of the vehicles manufactured on or after September 1, 2012, and before September 1, 2013;
  • 40% of the vehicles manufactured on or after September 1, 2013, and before September 1, 2014; and
  • 100% of the vehicles manufactured on or after September 1, 2014.

The one downside: NHTSA admits that of all the possible solutions, video backup systems are

the most expensive single technology. When installed in a vehicle without any existing visual display screen, rearview video systems are currently estimated to cost consumers between $159 and $203 per vehicle, depending on the location of the display and the angular width of the lens. For a vehicle that already has a suitable visual display, such as one found in route navigation systems, the incremental cost of such a system is estimated to be $58 – $88, depending on the angular width of the lens.

Based on the composition and size of the expected vehicle fleet, the total incremental cost, compared to the MY 2010 fleet, to equip a 16.6 million new vehicle fleet with rearview video systems is estimated to be $1.9 billion to $2.7 billion annually. These costs are admittedly substantial.

Indeed they are… especially for an industry that also has to balance crashworthiness with sharply-increasing fuel-efficiency standards. But if this will really stop people from being backed over and killed, it might be worth it. What’s the story there?

Using the effectiveness estimates that we have generated and assuming that all vehicles would be equipped with this technology, we believe the annual fatalities that are occurring in backing crashes can be reduced by 95 to 112.

That’s $20m+ per life saved… again, assuming that sheer technology-proof idiocy isn’t the real cause of most of these crashes. Which it probably is. But luckily, NHTSA has some emotionally manipulative arguments that might make you justify that cost regardless. To wit:

100 of the 228 annual victims of backover crashes are very young children with nearly their entire lives ahead of them. There are strong reasons, grounded in this consideration and in considerations of equity, to prevent these deaths… Some of the benefits of the proposed rule are hard to quantify, but are nonetheless real and significant. One such benefit is that of not being the direct cause of the death or injury of a person and particularly a small child at one’s place of residence. In some of these cases, parents are responsible for the deaths of their own children; avoiding that horrible outcome is a significant benefit… There is evidence that many people value the lives of children more than the lives of adults.In any event, there is special social solicitude for protection of children. This solicitude is based in part on a recognized general need to protect children given their greater vulnerability to injury and inability to protect themselves.

NHTS argues that because small children can’t be trained to listen for “backup beeps,” backup cameras are necessary.

Edward Niedermeyer
Edward Niedermeyer

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  • Ktm Ktm on Dec 04, 2010

    The problem with the rear-view cameras is that the driver will become camera myopic. I found myself succumbing to this when driving my wife's Prius which has a back-up camera. You stare at the camera while backing up and neglect to check your side-mirrors. The camera is only good for showing you what is immediately behind you, not what is around the rear quarter panels. Once I felt myself becoming fixated on the rear-view camera, I quickly stopped the car, checked my side-view mirrors, and continued to back out like I would normally do (without using the camera). I guarantee you more accidents will occur in parking lots because of these cameras as everyone will fixate on them. They will then issue side-view cameras to combat the growing incident of side-swipes.

  • MadHungarian MadHungarian on Dec 06, 2010

    OK, let me get this straight. We have identified what may be a real safety problem in today's cars. They have such poor visibility that you can't back them up safely. Why not fix the safety problem, instead of adding an expensive (and questionably effective) workaround? In other words, if the government is going to mandate something, why not set visibility standards for each vehicle type (car, van, truck) and require cars to meet them? When I owned a '63 Cadillac, the one called a "six window sedan" with a very airy greenhouse and thin pillars all around, and rear fender ends visible from inside the car, I used to amaze people with my ability to parallel park such a behemoth. But if you have superb visibility, parking anything is easy. Noe before you start telling me the 63 ways that '63 Caddy was a deathtrap -- I know. But are you telling me that after 47 years of materials, design and technology improvements, we can't design a car that has the same visibility but meets today's safety standards? I cannot understand how that could be true.

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