With or without eyes in the back of their heads, drivers keep hitting things.
Despite the growing prevalence of backup cameras, federal data shows that this technology hasn’t significantly cut down on cars backing into people and causing them harm.
That research on so-called “back-over incidents” comes as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration moves to make backup cameras standard and presses automakers to add a bevy of new technologies - from automatic braking to lane collision warnings - to even entry-level cars to reduce accidents on the road.
Backup cameras have been around longer than other car safety tech, so the federal government has years of data on their effect.
Between 2008 and 2011 - the most recent years for which data was made available by NHTSA - backup cameras more than doubled from 32% to 68% of all new cars sold. But injuries fell less than 8%, from about 13,000 down to 12,000. The improvement in safety has been very gradual from year to year.
NHTSA will mandate backup cameras in all passenger vehicles by 2018, a move it estimates will save between 58 and 69 lives each year once every car on the road has one. And that process could take a while.
As car companies and even regulators increasingly lean on technology to make roads safer, the tepid success of the backup camera is a red flag. Sure, drivers can see more of what’s behind them - the cameras reduce blind zones while in reverse by 90%, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety - but they keep hitting things. And with a camera, they might even see themselves do it.
“Deaths from back-over crashes thankfully are pretty rare, but they still are tragic,” said Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “We know that rear cameras can help, but they’re not a silver bullet.”
Even with backup cameras, drivers still don’t look around their vehicles enough when in reverse and sometimes get distracted by any number of things as their cars roll backward, says Janette Fennell, president and founder of car safety nonprofit KidsAndCars.org.
Still, the cameras are wildly popular features. In a 2014 Edmunds survey, 89% of respondents said they wanted their next car to have a rearview camera.
More than collision avoidance systems or better airbags, drivers see how useful backup cameras can be every time they pull out of a parking space or make a three-point turn, said Cars.com Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder.
“A lot of people assume, ‘I’m not going to have an accident so I don’t need [collision avoidance],” he said. “The best airbag is the one you never experience. The backup camera has clear and demonstrable uses.”
Jacob Bogage writes for the Washington Post.