While most of the automotive world has spent April focused on General Motors’ Chevrolet Cobalt stalling issues and recalls, the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency issued a new ruling likely to affect all our lives — and certainly our cars — for years to come:
Rearview cameras will be required on all vehicles under 10,000 pounds starting in May 2018.
NHTSA says that on average, back-over crashes cause 15,000 injuries and 210 fatalities per year — almost a third of the deaths are children under 5, and another quarter are adults 70 years of age and older.
It’s long past time for the rule change.
The Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act passed Congress in 2008, but its implementation has been delayed several times. Its passage has been the mission of Susan Auriemma, vice president of KidsAndCars.org, a nonprofit child safety organization dedicated to preventing injuries and death to children in or around motor vehicles.
“I'm so happy that the rule has finally been issued — not just happy for those who worked so hard in loving memory of the child they lost to the tragedy of a back-over crash, but for all those kids whose lives this rule will save going forward,” Ms. Auriemma said in a statement. “This could not have come soon enough."
After three years of testing some of the latest tricks in automotive technology, I am firmly on the side of not relying too much on the latest gimmicks to solve our problems. We have alerts that warn us when we’re drifting out of our lanes; cruise control that slows us down when we get too close to the car in front of us; wipers that sense the rain.
But the rearview camera is unequivocally the best idea to come along since anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control.
The problem with the other technologies is that they are vague, or they take the driver out of the equation. “I don’t really have to pay attention to my speed,” thinks the guy with the adaptive cruise control. "The car will slow me down." Until one day, it malfunctions, and it doesn’t.
The lane departure warning takes that disconnect one step further, coupling it with a set of beeps that can actually distract a driver until he or she learns what those noises mean.
Bless NHTSA, though, because the agency had actually been considering requiring sensors and warning sounds, better mirrors, and fewer blind spots instead of cameras. But rearview cameras give drivers more real, clear information about the surroundings.
My family unit has already been aided by this technology.
The House of Mr. Driver’s Seat is an oldish house that seems even older, thanks in part to a quirky addition built by a previous owner unconcerned with conventional construction techniques. One quirk: A door from the family room enters the garage just 3 feet from the garage doors, behind the parked cars.
Chez Seat is also populated, in addition to Sturgis Kids 1.0 through 4.0 and Mrs. Passenger Seat, by a menagerie of animals. The current pet census numbers three dogs and five cats, and often adds an assortment of babysat critters and neighborhood visitors.
One afternoon I was backing one of the test cars out of the garage and suddenly I saw our Chihuahua appear on the screen of the rearview camera. Fortunately, after years of serving as Dad, I’ve learned to back up slowly enough that I could knock someone over and they’d still have time to arise and get out of the way. But the camera alerted me to stop, so no animals were harmed in the making of this tale. These cameras are definitely worth the price.
Some companies have gone even a step further. Nissan and its luxury brand Infiniti debuted something called the AroundView monitor in 2009, and I find its usefulness is astounding.
Though most of my test vehicles sit outside, an 2013 Infiniti JX35 crossover got a garage spot once. While backing out the first time, I noticed the rearview camera on the dash featured a picture of ... my garage. I thought "Hmm. Google Earth." Then, "Noooo, Sturgis. You're inside.”
Kyle Bazemore, senior manager of Infiniti communications, explained that four cameras on the vehicle — one under each side-view mirror, one under the license plate, and another on the grille — images of all sides of the vehicle. A computer program blends these images before they appear on the dashboard monitor.
And, voila, I can see the baseball mitts hanging on my garage wall on Channel JX35. Or better yet, someone approaching from any side of the vehicle, not just the back.
The AroundView Monitor came as a part of packages ranging from $3,000 to almost $5,000 on the vehicles I tested.
Sure, cost can be an issue and requiring the camera as standard equipment means it’ll be factored into the cost of a vehicle. Some advances are just worth it, and this is one of them.
The real bonus is that today’s high-definition video technology actually almost offers a clearer view of the world than reality itself. Look around at your neighborhood through the windshield and side windows, and then look at the view offered on the infotainment screen from a backup camera. In many vehicles I’ve tested, it’s a sharper picture than reality.
And in a world where people can’t get enough of their screens — from tablets to phones to archaic devices likes computers, laptops and TVs — this will be an attention-grab toward safety.
“Wheels,” a special advertising supplement, appears inside today’s Post-Gazette.
Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org