UPDATED: See below
On July 8, 2004, five-year-old Benjamin Donnell was killed when his father backed over him in the family's SUV. On October 9, 2004, two-year-old Adrianna Clemens met a similarly tragic fate.
These stories are not unusual. In fact, according to a report in the New York Times, over 50 children in the U.S. are hurt every week when they get caught behind a moving vehicle. On average, two of those children die.
This week, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will announce plans to address this problem by mandating that all passenger vehicles come with rearview cameras by 2014. The plan comes after a study encouraged by advocacy groups like KidsAndCars, which began gathering stories like those of Benjamin and Adrianna to bring attention to the prevalence of backover accidents.
The regulation stems from a 2008 law called the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act, which required the NHTSA to gather information about rear-visibility and set appropriate safety standards. The law was named for two-year-old Cameron Gulbransen, who was killed after being struck by an SUV driven by his father.
In terms of off-road accidents, more children die from backovers than from any other cause. But children aren't the only ones who fall prey to vehicles in reverse. Up to 17,000 people of all ages are injured each year in those situations.
The major cause of backover accidents is the blind spot immediately behind a vehicle. Ironically, this has become a bigger problem over the years, as auto designers have enlarged vehicles, raised beltlines, and reduced the size of windows to improve vehicle safety. In fact, the number of child fatalities stemming from backovers jumped 88% between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s.
Rearview cameras are intended to eliminate the blind spot and reduce the number of accidents. (The NHTSA looked at alternative solutions, but none were as effective as the cameras.) While the devices won't solve the problem entirely, they could reduce the number of injuries and deaths by half.
Like any improvement -- whether it's better fuel economy or an added brake light -- rearview cameras will come at a cost. Regulators estimate that the feature will add around $160 - $200 to the price of a new vehicle.
The good news is that rearview cameras are already standard equipment on over 45% of all 2012 vehicles. For safety advocates, that means we're getting a head-start on the program. For shoppers, it means that you won't need to upgrade thousands of dollars to a deluxe package to get a rearview camera on your next car or truck.
For more stories about the problem of backover accidents, visit KidsAndCars.org. And be sure to catch their PSA below, demonstrating how a whopping 62 children can fit in the blind spot of a large SUV:
UPDATE: According to AutoNews, the NHTSA will not make its announcement this week. In fact, it has likely been delayed until the end of the year.
This is the second time this announcement has been pushed back. Former president George W. Bush signed a law in 2008 requiring that the new backover safety regulations be unveiled by the end of 2011. However, in an emailed statement, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said that the Department of Transportation and the NHTSA need more time to study "a wider range of vehicles and drivers".
That doesn't sound as if cameras themselves are off the table. In fact, it seems pretty clear from the existing data that cameras trump other devices -- including backup alarms -- in terms of bystander safety. From LaHood's brief statement it would appear that the feds are stalling for time to finesse the specific thresholds that the new technology will need to meet, like width and depth of field.
Bottom line: barring the development of some spectacular new technology, rearview cameras will likely become standard equipment on new vehicles very soon. Depending on the timing of the NHTSA announcement, that may not be possible by 2014, but 2015 would be a good guess.