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Report finds backup cameras can help prevent needless tragedies

Technology shows promise in reducing back-over deaths

Published: March 13, 2014 12:01 AM

Backup cameras are more effective than parking sensors at helping drivers avoid dangerous back-over accidents with objects or people, according to a new report.

Each year, almost 300 people are killed and 18,000 injured in “back-over” crashes, with most victims being young children. These technologies promise to reduce the number of such tragedies, while also providing new conveniences, such as ease of parking and simplifying trailer hookup. Already, the cameras are proliferating, being offered on most mainstream and luxury vehicles. Consumer Reports has been a vocal advocate for requiring visibility standards with automobiles, and this new report provides further evidence of their benefit.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety conducted two studies to determine the potential benefits of rear cameras. The first measured visibility and looked at how sensors and cameras can help drivers “see” behind their vehicles as they are backing up. (Learn more about car safety.)

Researchers used a pole with painted bands to represent the height and head size of a 12-month-old to 15-month-old, 2½ to 3-year-old, and 5- to 6-year-old. The pole was then placed behind 21 vehicles from the 2010-2013 model years to determine which part of the pole was visible. Naturally, the shorter band representing the youngest child was much harder to see than the other bands.

Of the tested vehicles, large SUVs had the worst visibility and small cars the best. But the results vary model to model. For instance, the Hyundai Sonata’s blind zone was 42-percent larger than a Ford F-150 pickup truck's. It sounds counterintuitive until you consider that like many new cars, the Sonata has a sloped rear window and high trunk, contributing to its large blind zone. The vehicles with backup cameras reduced the blind zone by 90 percent on average, and those vehicles that had parking sensors in addition to the camera only added a small benefit of 2 to 3 percentage points in the evaluation.

In the Institute’s other test, 111 volunteers drove a 2013 Chevrolet Equinox and were not told what the study was about. They were asked to perform a number of tests on the infotainment system and conduct parking maneuvers. They were then asked to back out of their spot and drive to their personal cars. As they backed out, a foam cutout representing a child was put in their way. At times it was stationary and other times it moved. Moving targets proved easier to detect, but when the faux child was stationary, all drivers hit it when the vehicle lacked any of the helpful technologies.  

Drivers with the backup camera alone had the fewest collisions with the stationary target, but still 56 percent hit the dummy. The parking sensors alone only helped 6 percent of drivers avoid the dummy. And oddly, 75 percent of those with the sensors and the camera hit the stationary dummy, more than with cameras alone. All drivers without electronic safety aids hit the stationary object. This study shows that cameras alone are more effective at preventing these rear crashes, but detection isn’t guaranteed. Variables such as weather and reduced lighting can reduce their effectiveness. IIHS concludes that additional safety technologies such as automatic braking could help; it has proven beneficial in preventing front crashes and could do the same for helping to avoid rear crashes. But given that many cars do not have any rear visibility technology, adding the cameras or sensors can only help to reduce injury and death numbers.

This study comes as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is considering mandating rear-visibility technology. Last fall, Consumers Union joined a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation because the agency failed to finalize the rule proposed in 2010. Congress ordered the rule issued by 2011, but the Obama administration has repeatedly delayed it. In anticipation, many but not all automakers have made backup cameras standard, or at least optional, on new cars, voluntarily making this valued technology available ahead of a mandate. NHTSA has estimated that backup cameras would prevent 95 to 112 deaths and 7,072 to 8,374 injuries each year when implemented.

Liza Barth


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