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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Cameras finally mandatory

An iconic quote attributed to exotic car builder, Enzo Ferrari, asserts, “What’s behind you doesn’t matter.”  Ferrari’s quote is a reference to going ever fast and forward, but no automaker would utter those words today.  It turns out that what’s behind you matters very much in driving, especially if you plan to back up!

In a proposed rule evolving over several years, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has advanced legislation that would require backup cameras on all new vehicles sold in the United States by May, 2018.  In 2010, the NHTSA reported that an average of 292 people die each year from back-over accidents.  More than 18,000 people a year are hurt in such accidents, with over 3,000 of them suffering incapacitating injuries.   44 percent of victims are under the age of 5.

What’s the cost of compliance?  To equip a yearly new-vehicle fleet of 16.6 million units would cost from $1.9 billion to $2.7 billion, the agency said in the proposal. It called the cost “substantial,” but said the measure could reduce back-over deaths and injuries by almost half.  These systems would virtually eliminate the 10 to 30 foot blind spot, depending on vehicle type, directly to the rear.

All of this points to one of the reasons why I suggest a “walk-around” before getting into your vehicle.  There may be a low tire, an item leaning against the passenger side, or something or someone at the rear bumper.  I’ll continue that practice even though my car has a camera in back.

Implementing the NHTSA mandate has taken nearly 10 years, during which time many manufacturers got an early start installing the cameras.  The agency proposal began nearly a decade ago, and by 2014, over half of new auto models incorporated the technology.  Now, just ahead of the mandate, over three-fourths of the new car fleet has them.

Is it helping?  Well, some for now, but hopefully more soon.  Between 2008 and 2011 — the most recent years for which data was made available by NHTSA — backup camera presence in new cars more than doubled from 32% to 68%.  But injuries fell less than 8%, from about 13,000 down to 12,000.  The improvement in safety has been very gradual from year to year.

The fatality rate has improved somewhat, dropping 31% over the same period. But the sample size is small — deaths from cars moving in reverse are relatively rare. NHTSA's research shows deaths declined from 274 to 189 between 2008 and 2011, so the trend’s direction is positive.

As car companies and regulators increasingly apply technology to assist driver safety, the tepid success of the backup camera is a possible red flag. Sure, drivers can see more of what’s behind them — if they look — but they still keep hitting things.

Good drivers do not become totally dependent on driver safety assist mechanisms. There will never be an effective replacement for checking around your vehicle before departing forward or backward.  When monitoring a backup camera, physically turning one’s head to check the front and sides of the vehicle is also important while in the reverse mode.

Consumer acceptance on backup cameras is strong.  In a 2014 Edmunds survey, 89% of respondents said they wanted their next car to have the safety feature.  As of May, 2018, any of those people buying a new car will get their wish.

Readers may contact Bill Love via e-mail at