The Government Says, “Watch Where You’re Going!”

To reduce the number of “backing up” accidents, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration will require all cars to be equipped with backup cameras by 2018.

Lexus Backup Camera from Wikimedia Commons

Student drivers are taught to always look behind them when they are driving in reverse, but driver error and blind spots frequently lead to accidents that could be prevented by modern technology.  Now the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) is seeking to use such technology to make it easier for drivers to see the area behind their car as they back up.  The NHTSA’s “final rule” requires all cars under 10,000 pounds be equipped with backup cameras by May 1, 2018.  This final rule will help make a law that was passed by Congress in 2008 come to fruition.

The NHTSA is a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation that implements safety programs and conducts consumer protection and safety activities.  One of the NHTSA’s ongoing projects has been implementing the widespread installation of backup cameras in cars—a policy that became law in 2008 when it was passed by Congress as the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act and signed by President Geroge W. Bush.  The bill was named after a two-year old boy who died after his father failed to see him while he was backing down the driveway.  The bill received support from both parties in Congress and it was intended to go into effect in 2011, but its implementation was delayed.

The delay in implementing the Act was primarily due to a disagreement between the Obama Administration and the NHTSA over how intensive the backup camera requirements should be and how quickly the requirements should be implemented.  The original proposal required mandatory backup camera systems on all cars under 10,000 pounds by 2014.  The NHTSA estimated that installing backup cameras on new vehicles would come with a cost of $58 to $203 per car.  Many automobile manufacturers found the cost of backup cameras too expensive to accept.

 The NHTSA’s requirements are likely to have a beneficial effect by preventing accidents and incentivizing technology developments.

The new rule was motivated by injury statistics that demonstrate that on average there are 210 fatalities and 15,000 injuries that are caused by “backover” accidents each year, in addition to millions of dollars in property damage.  The NHTSA anticipates that the new requirements will prevent 59 to 69 deaths from occurring per year.  An additional motivation for the NHTSA to implement this policy was a lawsuit pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  The lawsuit was filed by public interest groups including Consumers Union, which is the advocacy wing of Consumer Reports magazine.  The goal of the lawsuit was to require the Obama Administration to take the necessary steps in order to implement the Cameron Gulbransen Act.  The lawsuit’s main argument was that the seven years that it took to implement the Act constituted “unreasonable delay” on the part of the DOT, which the Administrative Procedure Act forbids.  The case was rendered moot by the promulgation of the new rule.

Car manufacturers including Honda and Acura added backup cameras early on in order to cater to consumer demand for those features.  The new final rule provides some incentive for companies to install and develop additional safety features that go beyond the backup camera.  These additional safety features include some protective measures that are as of yet only available in luxury cars, such as a backup system that applies the vehicle’s brakes when an obstruction is detected.  With backup camera systems soon to be mandatory on all vehicles, automobile manufacturers who desire to attract consumers by providing safety features that are not offered by their competitors will be forced to advance their backup technology in order to do so.  While installing additional safety features involves incurring costs in order to develop the technology, automobile companies that do so stand to receive a substantial payoff by distinguishing their cars from those offered by their competitors.

 The NHTSA’s requirements have good intentions, but could contribute to the problem rather than alleviate it.

The NHTSA has the best of intentions, but the full implementation of its plan might contribute to driver distraction and, ironically, reduce the effectiveness of the program.  Once backup cameras become standard issue on all new cars, drivers might come to rely too much upon the backup camera technology to alert them to dangers that are behind them.  Dependence upon this technology would discourage the drivers from conducting essential observation work of their own while backing up.  While backup cameras provide greater visibility than what has been available before, drivers still face significant blind spots in spite of the technology.  For instance, a fast-moving obstacle such as a runner coming down a residential street would likely be invisible to a driver who was relying upon the narrow scope of view of the backup camera.  A driver who was looking out the back windows, by contrast, would stand a much better chance of being able to anticipate unexpected hazards passing behind the vehicle.

 The NHTSA’s requirements do not adequately address the primary cause of backup injuries.

Though some argue the backup cameras will reduce backup accidents, the driving force behind automobile backup injuries is operator error, not lack of technology.  The NHTSA’s requirements are highly detailed.  For instance they mandate that the picture displayed by the backup camera meet a certain quality, in addition to meeting standards regarding video quality, image size, durability, and safeguards against deactivation.  A high quality video feed, however, is of no benefit whatsoever if the driver of a vehicle does not pay attention. Driver attentiveness was contemplated by the NHTSA’s final rule, but does not adequately address the issue. .

In addition to the specifications mandated by the law, there are requirements that make the backup camera a viable safety feature.  For instance, some backup camera systems that are available have the ability to alert drivers to obstructions that are behind them, and some backup camera systems upon detection of an obstacle are able to apply the vehicle’s brakes in order to avoid hitting the obstruction.  The requirements set out by the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act were not solely focused on the installation of backup cameras on American cars.  Backup cameras were merely one item in a list that also included sensors being installed on cars in order to increase safety.  The NHTSA’s focus on the installation of backup cameras on vehicles has diverted attention away from the law’s wider focus on additional safety mechanisms that could significantly reduce the occurrence of backup collisions if these safety features were to be used in conjunction with one another.

Findings from studies that have been conducted by the NHTSA and other government entities have revealed that approximately thirty-one percent of those who are harmed in backup collisions are children under the age of five.  While the implementation of the final rule will undoubtedly save lives, the analysis that has been done of these findings fails to appreciate the fact that most children at this age are small enough to crawl under cars and in such a position they would be completely invisible to the backup camera system.  Adding sensors to a vehicle’s safety package, as the Cameron Gulbransen Act contemplated, would enable drivers to be fully alerted to obstacles that might pass unnoticed on a backup camera system.  If the focus of the NHTSA’s final rule had included the installation of sensors in addition to backup cameras, the greater range of coverage that would be provided would significantly reduce the likelihood that harm to children would occur while a driver is backing up.

The NHTSA’s requirements that every new car be outfitted with a backup camera by 2018 are well intentioned, but shortsighted.  After the significant delay between the passage of the Cameron Gulbransen Act and the NHTSA’s final rule on backup cameras, the long-awaited implementation of this policy will provide some comfort to families that have experienced the tragedy of backup accidents.  Unfortunately, by fixating upon backup cameras as the solution to these accidents, this policy fails to appreciate vital shortcomings that are present in that technology.  In particular, the new rule depends too much upon drivers to keep

John Mace, Former Senior Staff Writer
About John Mace, Former Senior Staff Writer (19 Articles)
John served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. He is originally from Concord, North Carolina, and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2012 with degrees in Political Science and History and a minor in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. John worked as an assistant for Sha Hinds-Glick with the Bar Success program at Campbell. He graduated from Campbell Law School in May 2015.
Contact: Email