Public Safety

The Price of Preventing Back-Over Deaths


One Sunday morning last April, Karen Pauly, a 33-year-old teacher from DeWitt, Iowa, climbed into her SUV to run some errands. As she backed out of the garage, Pauly felt a bump. She jumped out of the car and screamed when she saw her 19-month-old son, Jack, who had wandered out of the house, lying on the driveway. The boy died hours later. “Everybody thinks it can’t happen to them, but now I know it can,” says Pauly.

Each year, about 292 people die and 18,000 are injured in back-over accidents, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. By yearend the agency is expected to issue a regulation requiring rear-view cameras on all new automobiles sold in the U.S. starting in 2014. NHTSA says the cameras will cut the number of deaths by half, to 146 a year. Yet the auto industry is questioning the prospective rule, calling it an example of overregulation by the federal government. NHTSA estimates it will cost automakers as much as $2.7 billion to install the devices on 16 million cars every year, which works out to about $18.5 million per life saved.

Gloria Bergquist, spokeswoman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, says her members—which include Ford (F), General Motors (GM), Chrysler, Toyota (TM), Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen (VLKAF), and BMW—believe the regulators will be overreaching if they force consumers to pay more for a feature they may not want. “This should be a consumer decision,” says Bergquist, “not a government mandate.” The auto industry is directing its ire at the Obama Administration, but it was President George W. Bush who signed the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act in 2008. Named for a two-year-old boy who was killed in 2002 when an SUV driven by his father backed over him, the law gave NHTSA three years to come up with new rules to “reduce death and injury resulting from backing incidents” by requiring “additional mirrors, sensors, cameras, or other technology to expand the driver’s field of view.”

Back-up cameras are already a standard feature on 45 percent of 2012 passenger-car models, according to data compiled by Edmunds.com, an auto-market research company, and Bergquist says auto manufacturers aren’t opposed to regulations ensuring drivers have a clear line of sight behind them. But she says the government could have accomplished that by calling for different safety measures for different kinds of cars. The length of a rearview blind spot depends on the car’s make and the driver’s height. On coupes and sedans, which sit low to the ground, the blind spot can be as little as four feet. On taller SUVs, it can be 20 feet or more. By requiring cameras on all cars, NHTSA imposed an expensive, “one-size-fits-all solution” to the problem, Bergquist contends.

“Sometimes I think we superimpose our judgment of what’s good on what’s necessary,” says Representative Dan Lungren, a conservative Republican from California. “In a perfect world, everyone should have [a backup camera], but it’s an added cost.” Despite the complaints, the rule appears headed for final approval. Janette Fennell, president of KidsAndCars.org, an advocacy group that lobbied for cameras, says the anti-regulation argument is disheartening. “We’re talking about children’s lives here. We should be able to see when we’re backing up a 4,000-pound lethal weapon. Would you buy a car when you couldn’t see 20 to 30 feet forward?”

The bottom line: Manadatory back-up cameras could prevent 146 deaths a year, and cost up to $18.5 million per life saved.

Keane is a reporter for Bloomberg News in Washington.

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