After years of delays, U.S. safety regulators have announced that backup cameras will be required in new U.S. vehicles by May 2018.
The move comes just a day before a court of appeals was to hear arguments in a lawsuit brought against the government by safety groups and families of children injured and killed in back-over accidents.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced Monday that “rear-visibility technology” must be standard equipment in all vehicles under 10,000 pounds. The move aims to reduce the average of 210 deaths and 15,000 injuries caused every year by backup accidents. Many of the accidents involve children or seniors.
“Rear-visibility requirements will save lives, and will save many families from the heartache suffered after these tragic incidents occur,” said David Friedman, NHTSA’s acting administrator.
But NHTSA has come under heavy fire for not acting sooner.
A lawsuit scheduled to be heard Tuesday in the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals sought to force the regulators to act on a law Congress passed with bipartisan support in 2008. The Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act was named after a 2-year-old who was killed when his father backed over him in 2002.
This law required the Department of Transportation to issue a standard for rear visibility by 2011. But the agency filed four extensions between 2011 and 2013 and had announced it did not intend to enforce the law until January 2015, according to Scott Michelman, an attorney with Public Citizen, the consumer advocate group that was headed to court Tuesday.
“We applaud the DOT for issuing the rule,” Michelman said. “But it’s a bittersweet moment; by DOT’s own estimates, 200 people are killed and 15,000 are injured a year by backup crashes. You can do that math. Three years late means a lot of folks were harmed by this delay.”
Michelman was set to be lead counsel for Public Citizen’s suit against the DOT. His organization filed the suit on behalf of Cameron Gulbransen’s father, Greg; the mother of a girl injured in a backup accident; and three safety organizations: Consumers Union of the United States, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, and Kids and Cars Inc.
“We’re hugely thrilled,” said Greg Gulbransen. He called the delay an “unnecessary, silly mistake.”
“But when you take your grief and channel it into policy change, you feel good,” Gulbransen said.
The rule announced Monday requires that vehicles built on or after May 1, 2018, come with rear-visibility technology. This is most often added to vehicles in the form of backup cameras. A 10-by-20-foot zone immediately behind the vehicle would need to be visible when backing up.
Many vehicles come with the feature standard already; Honda and Acura are among the first brands that will offer backup cameras standard on all models in 2015. Nearly every automaker offers a backup camera as an option or as part of a package of options.
Automakers make considerable money by charging customers for options such as backup cameras.
“It’s my understanding that some companies made so much money on these options, they didn’t want the rule issued, because then everybody would get it for a much cheaper price,” said Joan Claybrook, former head of NHTSA and president emeritus of Public Citizen.
“I find it cynical and discouraging that this was the response to a bill passed in 2008,” she said. “Little kids are dying. It’s been nearly eight years.”
NHTSA defended its measured response by saying it wanted to get the new rule correct, and it pointed out that many automakers already offer backup cameras.
“NHTSA took time on this regulation to ensure that the policy was right and make the rule flexible and achievable,” the agency said in a statement. “Many companies are installing rear-visibility technology on their own, due to consumer demand.”
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the lobbying arm of the auto industry, said consumers should be able to choose what options they buy.
“It’s one of our most basic beliefs that consumers should be in the driver’s seat when choosing which technologies they want to purchase, and what features are most important to them and their families,” said spokesman Wade Newton.
But he stressed that automakers had also supported the Gulbransen Act.
The timing of Monday’s announcement was also noteworthy given NHTSA’s woes regarding General Motors Co. That automaker has recalled more than 2.6 million vehicles to fix faulty ignition switches that have been tied to at least 13 deaths. Internal documents show GM was aware of the issue as early as 2001, and NHTSA knew about it in 2007. But the automaker didn’t recall the cars until February of this year.
GM Chief Executive Mary Barra and NHTSA’s Friedman are scheduled to testify Tuesday before the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee about the reason for the delays.
“Here we are on the eve of GM hearings, with an appellate court ready to hear arguments against the DOT,” said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, an independent, for-profit safety research company. “That kicked things into high gear regarding this new rule. This agency historically needs a fire lit under it to get anything done.”
It would have been easy for regulators to require such a change much earlier, Kane said. The primary hurdle from a production standpoint is figuring out where to put the display screen for the backup camera. Yet some automakers have already found a solution: installing a screen in the rear-view mirror that displays input from the backup camera only when the vehicle is in reverse.
NHTSA estimated that the mandate would cost around $44 per vehicle when installing the camera system alone, and between $132 and $142 on models that don’t already have a suitable display area in the dashboard. But not everyone agreed with that assessment.
“That number seems high,” said Dave Sullivan, an analyst at AutoPacific.
Honda raised the base price of its redesigned 2015 Fit by only about $100, despite adding higher-quality materials, more safety features and a standard backup camera system.
Although there will be significant costs for fleet vehicles and basic, inexpensive cars, Sullivan pointed out that because so many vehicles will be using backup cameras and displays, the increased volume will push prices down significantly.
Some contend the hurdles to adding these camera systems aren’t great.
“Automakers realistically could have done this by 2016 without causing a whole lot of havoc in the industry,” Kane said. “The technology is available and it’s relatively inexpensive.”
Despite the delays, Greg Gulbransen was happy to move forward in his son’s honor.
“We thought we won so many times,” Gulbransen said. “And now we finally have our victory. A lot of people who have children will never have the problem we had.”