After years of delays and on the eve of a lawsuit against the government, U.S. safety regulators have announced that backup cameras will be required in all vehicles built in and after May 2018.
The Department of Transportation and its National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced Monday that "rear visibility technology" would need to 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 back-up 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," NHTSA's acting administrator David Friedman said in a statement.
However, NHTSA has come under heavy criticism from safety advocates and families of children injured and killed in back-over accidents for not acting sooner.
A lawsuit was scheduled to be heard Tuesday in a federal appeals court that sought to force the DOT 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 DOT to issue a standard for rear visibility by 2011. Yet 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, to be heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. His organization filed the suit on behalf of Cameron Gulbransen's father, 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.
The rule announced Monday requires that all 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 a backup camera.
"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.
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. "In fact, at this point, many companies are installing rear visibility technology on their own, due to consumer demand."
The timing of Monday's announcement was also noteworthy given NHTSA's woes regarding General Motors. That automaker has recalled more than 2.6 million vehicles to fix faulty ignition switches 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. Yet no recall was ordered 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 delays in recalling vehicles with the faulty ignition switch.
"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 to get anything done."
It would have been easy for the DOT 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.
"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. This delay is kind of amazing given what [the NHTSA's] mandate is. It feel like the regulated parties are more their partners than the public."
Claybrook expressed a similar opinion. "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."