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Blind spot in safety net gains attention

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Special to The Times

With summer here and more children playing outside, drivers need to be especially vigilant in watching out for toddlers when backing vehicles out of driveways.

A safety advocacy group reports that 58 children were killed last year by passenger vehicles that were backing up, an increase from 37 deaths in 2001. Kids ‘N Cars, a San Francisco-based organization, says such fatalities have been steadily rising in recent years.

All told, since the group began tracking such accidents in 1992, 206 children have been killed and 124 injured.

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This cautionary advice is particularly important for drivers of light trucks: sport utility vehicles, minivans and pickups. Studies have shown that the larger the vehicle, the bigger the blind spot -- the area behind the vehicle that is out of the driver’s view.

More than 60% of backing-up accidents involve SUVs, minivans and pickups, says Janette Fennell, Kids ‘N Cars’ co-founder and executive director. She contends that these accidents are increasing because more drivers are buying larger vehicles. Today, about half the passenger vehicles sold in the United States are light trucks.

Although the number of backing-up deaths is small compared with the 42,000 fatalities nationwide in traffic accidents, the tragedy is that “many of these children are accidentally killed or injured in their own driveways by parents or family members who didn’t see them,” Fennel said.

According to Kids ‘N Cars, in recent weeks an 18-month-old boy in Cleveland was hit and killed in his driveway when his grandmother backed up her minivan and didn’t see him playing nearby. And a 2-year-old girl in Gibson City, Texas, was struck and killed by her father as he backed his SUV down his driveway.

Alarmed by these and other accidents involving youngsters, safety advocates have proposed federal legislation to require the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to collect more data on backing-up accidents, heat-related deaths in vehicles and children who get trapped in trunks.

The legislation, proposed by Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports, and Kids ‘N Cars, would call for NHTSA to study the effectiveness of back-up warning devices. If the study showed that such devices could prevent deaths, the bill would mandate that the technology be installed as standard equipment in light trucks by 2006 and in passenger cars in 2007.

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Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) is working on drafting the proposed legislation.

“These accidents can be prevented,” Fennell said. “These devices should be standard equipment.”

Ford Motor Co. offers a rear sensing system that is marketed as a convenience parking aide, but the system is not intended to detect a person walking in back of the vehicle. However, Ford is working on products that would improve visibility and reduce blind spots, spokeswoman Kristen Kinley said.

“We are cautiously optimistic about the technology,” Kinley said. “At this point, it does not detect moving objects 100% of the time, and we don’t want people to have a false sense of security” with a device.

Some models of General Motors Corp.’s Cadillac Escalade full-size SUV and Cadillac Seville large sedan come with a parking sensing device as standard equipment. The parking devices are optional on various other GM vehicles, including models of the Buick Park Avenue large sedan and the Chevy Venture minivan.

One problem in gaining public awareness about driveway fatalities involving children is that NHTSA historically has focused on crashes on public roadways, Consumers Union says.

Kids ‘N Cars, for example, which relies on news reports, police departments and a network of sources to compile its data, believes that it undercounts the number of driveway fatalities, Fennel says.

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A study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which used data from emergency rooms, found that children 14 and younger suffered 2,767 injuries requiring emergency treatment in backing-up accidents in a recent 12-month period.

The CDC study concluded that children who are left unattended in or around motor vehicles that are not in traffic are “at increased risk for injury and death.”

Jeanne Wright responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: jeanrite@aol.com.

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