Rearview Backup Cameras: Dashed Expectations

December 3, 2010

When I was an Internet Manager, actively selling cars for a major car dealer, more and more buyers were coming in requesting backup cameras on their new vehicles. This was especially true for those buying minivans, which generally have poorer visibility than sedans, coupes, or most trucks.

The government estimates that rearview cameras will help reduce the 300 lives lost each year in backup accidents. Incredibly, 18,000 injuries result from backup accidents, many of those to children and the elderly who are most at risk. Rear view cameras will help to significantly reduce the number of people injured as well.

Yet, the majority of potential new car buyers  I worked with wanted the new backup system to help them park their vehicle, either on the street where parallel parking can be difficult, or to help back into or out of parking lot spaces or driveways.  They were aware of other safety benefits, but their main reason for paying extra for a vehicle with a rearview camera was to help them park.

Dashed Expectations

Why, then, were most of my rearview-camera customers disappointed with the technology? I asked them. Turns out they had expected the rearview camera to be a cure-all, to make it easy to park a vehicle with poor visibility.

In truth, a backup camera is a useful tool when parking, but it can’t be used as the only way to see where your vehicle is at in relation to objects around you.  I was surprised the first time I drove a vehicle with a backup camera. Distances on the screen were so distorted that it was hard to determine exactly how far away I was from the vehicle behind me, and to objects on either side as I drove in reverse.

Like my customers, I couldn’t rely solely on the backup camera when parking. Instead, I had to use the side and rearview mirrors—as I always did—to help park the vehicle. In other words, when it comes to parking, a backup camera is a secondary aid and not a primary tool. That was the main reason for my customer’s dashed expectations.

Real Benefits

The fact that a rearview camera can only help you park your vehicle does not detract from the life-saving benefits this technological innovation provides. In fact, the benefits are so substantial that the Department of Transportation (DOT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) are proposing that all new vehicles offer rearview camera systems by September 2014. The new regulations would require a phase-in period beginning in 2012.

The most common rearview camera systems now in use show you what the camera sees either in one segment of the rearview mirror or on the screen of a built-in navigation unit. The image comes up automatically when the vehicle’s transmission shifts into reverse.

The government hopes that making rearview cameras mandatory in all new vehicles will reduce the number of people killed or injured in backup accidents. A side benefit will be added help when parking a vehicle with limited visibility. It won’t be a total remedy for those who need help parking. At a minimum, it will help you see what’s in your blind spot. Understanding that before buying a vehicle with a rearview camera will help buyers develop realistic expectations.

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