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Rear-view cameras may soon be mandatory

A not-new, not-perfect idea whose time has come

  • Buick

If you’ve driven a vehicle with a back-up camera, you know how helpful it can be. You also know how frustrating it can be when its lens is covered with snow or ice, which can be a frequent state in a Canadian winter.

For better or worse, back-up cameras, also called reversing or rear-view cameras, may soon become mandatory equipment on all new cars and light trucks sold in the U.S and Canada.

Or not.

Rear-view cameras are far from a new idea. The first on record appeared in the 1956 Buick Centurion concept car ? a futuristic, bubble-topped beauty with a distinct aircraft influence.

In that application, a rear mounted television camera sent constant images to a screen in the instrument panel, actually replacing the rear-view mirror.

While similar setups still appear in concept vehicles as replacements for outside mirrors, the backup cameras currently in production, in most cases, are complements to the inside mirror.

They are intended to reduce or eliminate the so-called blind zone close behind a vehicle, which can hide pedestrians, children, the elderly, small animals and objects.

The image they create typically appears only when the vehicle’s transmission is shifted into reverse.

Originally offered in commercial vehicles, especially buses, and luxury-level cars, back-up cameras have now become ubiquitous. They’re offered even in entry-level compacts, albeit at extra cost in most cases.

If the U.S. government gets its way, they’ll be made standard equipment. But few safety standards have had as rough a ride from inception to implementation as has this one.

In 2007, the U.S. Congress approved legislation requiring new standards for rear visibility in vehicles, which would necessitate back-up cameras.

Backovers ? vehicles reversing into pedestrians ? were said to kill about 300 people annually and injure 16,000, in the United States. About one-third of those fatalities involved children aged 5 or younger and another third involved people 70 or older, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Installing rear-view cameras on all new vehicles would reduce those fatalities by about 100 and injuries by about 7,500 annually (in the U.S), the agency estimated.

The cost was estimated to be from $159 to $203 per vehicle (all figures in U.S. dollars), if they didn’t already have a display screen installed, but just $58 to $88 if they did.

The standards, which would be written and administered by NHTSA, would be phased in, beginning in 2011, and fully in place by the 2014 Amodel year.

Except they weren’t.

NHTSA has now delayed finalization of the rule-making four times, initially during the auto industry meltdown and more recently under opposition from automakers who question the cost-effectiveness of the feature.

A presentation by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a lobby group representing 11 international automakers, argued that the cost-per-life-saved would be more than double that of some other safety features, such as those required by side impact regulations.

As a consequence of those delays, in September, advocates for mandatory rear cameras, including a couple whose child was killed in a backover incident, filed suit to compel the government to implement the regulations.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood now says his goal is to finalize regulations by year’s end. But even if that happens, it’s expected to be at least 18 months before the rules could be implemented.

If and when they are, it’s likely that Canada will follow suit, although there have been some exceptions to this country’s standard practice of rubber-stamping U.S. safety standards.

Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems (TPMS), for example, are required in the U.S. but not in Canada.

In the meantime, if you want to avail yourself of the benefits of a rear-view camera, you can get one on almost any new car, CUV or SUV on the market. You can even buy aftermarket units at your local parts and accessories store.

Be aware, however, that back-up cameras are no panacea for reversing collisions. They all have limitations.

Most are subject to being obscured by snow and ice, which readily accumulates in the low pressure area formed at the back of a vehicle when it’s moving. Their lenses need to be cleaned regularly.

Some new models have an on-board washer to clean the lens but not all do.

They’re also subject to the amount of light available behind the car, limiting their effectiveness at night.

So drivers are advised to use them wisely, as a supplement to the rear-view mirror, and to take a walk-around to assure there’s nothing hidden behind the vehicle before backing up.

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