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Give A Green Light To Backup Camera Rules

Sometimes, you just can’t find a good government regulator when you need one.

I have been among those complaining that the Obama administration seems determined to micromanage everything that moves, but I have to admit I was wrong. Just as the administration seemed on the verge of issuing a regulation that makes absolute sense for both economic and safety reasons, it has backed off.

If this seems hard to understand, remember that this is an election year. President Obama is fighting to carry Michigan and other Midwestern states, and the federal government continues to hold a big stake in two of the three U.S.-based auto makers. Against that backdrop, it is not so surprising that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood this week put the brakes on rules that would soon require rearview video camera systems on new cars and trucks.

LaHood told lawmakers his department needs more time to gather and analyze data before proceeding with the new regulation. “I believe it is important to allot additional time to ensure that the final rule is appropriate and the underlying analysis is robust,” he explained in a letter on Tuesday.

The regulation was supposed to be announced this week, despite opposition from automakers, who argued that visibility could be improved with better mirrors and that requiring a video system would be too expensive (about $160 to $200 per vehicle, according to The New York Times). Regulators countered that “95 to 112 deaths and as many as 8,374 injuries could be avoided each year by eliminating the wide blind spot behind a vehicle.”

A 2008 federal law called for the Transportation Department to issue its rule on rear visibility standards by February 2011. Last year the department gave itself another 12 months. Now a statement issued by LaHood’s office has promised a rule by the end of 2012, some 22 months after the original deadline (and, not inconsequentially, after the upcoming election).

Nearly half of all new cars already have backup cameras. Just like other safety features, from antilock brakes to stability systems, they will eventually make their way into most cars on the road, even without a federal mandate, because of a combination of consumer demand and automakers’ fears of liability suits.

But sometimes car makers need a nudge. Their arguments against requiring backup cameras today are the same ones that were leveled against mandating seat belts and padded dashboards when I was growing up in the 1960s. Back then, a lot of kids died when they rode alongside their parents and were hurled into metal dashboards during relatively minor collisions. Today, it’s hard to even imagine a car without seat belts. We had a similar debate in the 1980s and 1990s about requiring air bags. Now cars without frontal airbags are rare, as they have been required in new vehicles since 1999.

Automakers argue that extra-wide side mirrors, the cheaper alternative to rear cameras, would be equally effective in increasing rear visibility. That makes no sense. It is implausible that a side mirror could effectively match a rear-mounted camera coupled with an audible alert to warn a driver of a child sitting immediately behind a vehicle.

In addition, those wide mirrors will tend to get bashed into garage doorways and other obstacles unless drivers keep them folded flat against the side of the car. You can't see anything at all out of a folded mirror.

Safety ought to come standard in every car. Vehicles purchased off dealers’ lots a couple of years from now will be the “new” used cars families of modest means purchase a decade later. Those families will have kids, too, and they’ll need just as much protection. Technology has made backup cameras practical and affordable on every new vehicle. For the price of some silly dealer-provided “extra” such as undercoating or nitrogen-filled tires, we can save kids’ lives, not to mention a few bumpers, and prevent thousands of injuries.

Yet when we finally need a government regulator to act the part, he decides instead to act like the very worst example of an American auto executive. That’s disappointing, but it does not come as a shock when the government and the automakers are one and the same.

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