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Finally, a Fix for Backup Crashes

April 03, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

Have you ever caused a collision while backing up your motor vehicle? I have, twice tapping other cars while leaving supermarket parking spaces. Both times, I felt really stupid for not wrenching my aging neck to see where I was going.

But imagine how the drivers in an estimated 210 annual U.S. fatal backup collisions, more than half victimizing children or the elderly, must feel. Or even the 15,000 or so who inflict injuries the same way.

Congress must have been feeling the pain, too, when it ordered federal officials to draw up a rule by 2011 requiring backup cameras or reverse-gear warning devices on all new light-duty vehicles. Originally, it was thought the mandate would take effect this year. Many delays and a lawsuit demanding prompt action later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finally issued a "final rule" this week.

The "final rule" won't really be final for another 60 days of public comment. After that, it would phase in beginning May 1, 2016, until May 1, 2018, when all new vehicles under 10,000 pounds must be equipped with techology to show drivers a 10-by-20-foot zone directly to the rear.

This stuff already exists in more than half of 2014 models, and NHTSA estimates their cost at as little as $43 to add a camera to a car with an adequate display screen and $132 to $142 for a complete system. Still, with millions of cars rolling off U.S. assembly lines each year, the announcement spurred a surge in the stock prices of firms that make the devices.

Of course, car buyers spend a lot more these days on infotainment gadgets with the potential to cause more accidents by distracting drivers from the road ahead -- or behind. So it's nice to see some fancy technology that will increase safety getting a push from the government.

"Rear visibility requirements will save lives, and will save many families from the heartache suffered after these tragic incidents occur," NHTSA acting administrator David Friedman said in a news release. "We're already recommending this kind of life-saving technology through our NCAP program and encouraging consumers to consider it when buying cars today."

For the uninitiated, NCAP stands for New Car Assessment Program, whose 5-Star Safety Ratings single out makes and models with accident-avoidance systems such as forward collision and lane departure warning. NHTSA also offers tips to reduce backover accidents, including safeguards for both drivers and children.

If self-driving cars are ever perfected, experts say traffic mayhem of all kinds could be nearly eradicated. Still, I wonder. What's disappointing about the backup camera announcement is NHTSA's estimate of its safety benefit: a reduction of only 58 to 69 deaths a year -- just one-third off the current rate of backover fatalities -- and not until the national fleet is entirely equipped -- about 2054.

That means in 40 years we can expect a 3 percent drop in the 2,000 or so American pedestrians killed each year by motor vehicles. Excuse my yawning.

Nonetheless, it's a good idea to require something in automobile design that benefits people outside the vehicle, who suffer all sorts of externalities of driving beyond the risk of being run over. These include air pollution, traffic congestion and reduced access and mobility via non-motorized transportation.

Bigger improvements in both equity and safety can come from changing the design of motorways instead of just motorcars. That's probably another 40-year project to achieve complete streets  that well serve all modes of transportation in built-up areas, and we need to keep plugging away at it..

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