July 30, 2007

How to Stop Cars From Backing Over Kids

By: AFF Editors

According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimate, each year at least 183 people — mostly children and the elderly — die when a motor vehicle backs-over them. As a concerned citizen and consumer, what do you do about it:

(A) Look twice before putting the car in reverse? (Nah, too burdensome);
(B) Buy a car model equipped with backover technology? (Nope, too practical); or
(C) Lobby Congress to regulate motor vehicles (Ding, ding, ding!).

The Cameron Gulbransen Kids and Cars Safety Act of 2007, introduced to the Senate by Senator Hillary Clinton and to the House by Representative Janice Schakowsky, aims “to direct the Secretary of Transportation to issue regulations to reduce the incidence of child injury and death occurring inside or outside of light motor vehicles, and for other purposes.”

The bill, currently in front of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, has threefold requirements: (1) it calls for automatic reversal of direction by power windows and panels when they detect an obstruction; (2) a rearward visibility performance standard to prevent backing incidents; and (3) it requires that automatic transmissions have an anti-rollaway system that requires brakes to be depressed before the transmission can be shifted out of park.

In a nation of over 300 million, you’d think the families of the .0000006 percent of Americans who get backed over by a car wouldn’t have much political sway. However, the stories — being so rare in occurrence — get editors and journalists salivating at the coverage opportunity. The tragedies even have a name: “bye-bye syndrome,” as it is frequently the case that kids rushing up to say goodbye. The over-representation of such accidents in the media allow lobbyists to gain a foothold among the general public, and offer politicians an easy opportunity to gain votes.

Although safety is already a primary concern when potential buyers hit car lots — suggesting that car manufacturers should be willing to compete over these consumers by supping up safety features — there are surely safety regulations that are worth the regulatory effort. For example, airbags reduce the risk of death in a frontal collision by 30 percent and might otherwise be spared by overconfident consumers willing sacrifice the feature in exchange for a cheaper purchase price. But to require backup alert technology in all cars — technology that already exists in many cars today — is overkill. It piles yet another safety regulation, which already number in the thousands, onto the lawbooks, and raise prices for all consumers.

It’s understandable that the families of victims of “bye-bye syndrome” would want to protect others from such accidents or fault poor safety regulation for their tragedy. But the truth of the matter is that despite our legislators best efforts, there’s nothing that can prevent all accidents caused by careless driving. In fact, mandated backup technology might only lull absent-minded drivers into a false sense of security about the awareness of their surroundings.

The NHTSA report on the effectiveness of backover technology hints at this point: “the Agency cautions readers of this report about relying on the results of our testing or other published test results to promote such systems as an effective means to address the backover crash risk. In order to reduce the number of backover incidents, it is very important to obtain a better understanding of the environmental factors that limit the camera’s effectiveness and the limits of driver performance using such systems.”

As citizens, we should always welcome the role of government in education about the frequency of these accidents and how to best protect against them. And as consumers, we should seek out those motor vehicles which best fit our understanding of these safety concerns. But as citizen-consumers, we should be skeptical of costly legislation aimed at guarding against a negligible risks.

Taylor W. Buley is a graduate from the University of Pennsylvania and is author of “The Fresh Politics Reader.”