Lawsuit Over Backup-Camera Mandate: No Substitute for Paying Attention

Posted on September 27, 2013

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I do not accept the premise that “I backed my car over my kid, so now the government needs to mandate backup cameras on all new vehicles to make sure this never happens again.”  I am sorry for those families’ pain, but making sweeping laws that increase costs for everyone, based on the tragic accidents of the few, is poor policy and will not necessarily prevent back-over accidents anyway.

First, let’s look at how pedestrian parents with little kids in tow behave around other people’s cars.  Head for any Wal-Mart parking lot to begin your study.  Sure, you will see some parents who keep their kids close, stay out of traffic lanes, and watch for cars; but you will probably notice more who allow their kids to swarm away from them, running behind cars without looking to see if they might be about to move, strolling right up the center of the traffic lanes, heading into crosswalks without looking… or even walking knowingly right into the paths of slow-moving cars, fully expecting that the car will stop and wait for them.  It’s very strange.  They just arrived in a car, yet once on foot, they see the entire parking lot as a pedestrian zone and not a traffic area, and all caution evaporates.  This is significant, because their young children – little sponges that they are – absorb the lesson that they are completely safe in walking around moving or potentially moving cars.  There is no perception whatsoever that the cars are dangerous, and operated by fallible human drivers.

I must be officially “old,” because I have taken to phrases that begin with, “Back when…”  This is one of those times.  Back when I was growing up, we were taught that yes, the pedestrian has the right of way, but never, never assume that you will get it.  It was thoroughly impressed upon us that drivers don’t see everything… especially behind them… and that it takes time for them to react to any situation.  Drivers are fallible, and in a collision between our little bodies and a car, our little bodies were going to lose.  So stay the hell away from cars, in no uncertain terms.  Wait at crosswalks until you have eye contact with the driver.  And so on.

The same applied at home.  Of course we played outside the house, but anytime Dad was about to get in the car, he chased us well clear of the driveway.  “Okay, you need to stay over there while I move the car.”  His voice always had that edge to it that you don’t dare cross.  At the time, I just thought he was eternally grumpy.  In retrospect, I think he was tense because of the very idea of backing into one of us,  especially because we were in countries where the emergency medical care for such trauma wouldn’t be very good.  When you know there is no real safety net for an inattentive accident, you become a little more attentive.  Or in my Dad’s case, a lot more attentive.  His lesson, repeated to us so often at home, well conveyed to us the idea that cars are dangerous.

So – again, I’m sorry for the pain that these accidents cause, but they are a result of human error.  The errors of inadvertently allowing children an incorrect assumption that cars won’t hurt them, and driver inattention.  Inattention.  And that’s why the backup cameras, however handy they may be (Hubby loves his), are not… NOT a magical solution.

First, if the car is already in motion or about to be in motion, a child who runs or bikes or skates suddenly into view is still likely to get hit. The images can be deceptive; check out these photos from Hubby’s backup camera.  In the first picture, the watering can is much closer than it appears, only two feet behind the car.  In a typical scenario of pedestrians moving obliviously along a row of parked cars, this is about where they would be walking… probably too close for a driver to react, once they appear on-camera.  In the second picture, the can is just a few inches from the exhaust pipe.  So pedestrian training – starting from infancy – about car safety is paramount.

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The watering can is about 24 inches behind the bumper.

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The watering can is less than 6 inches from the exhaust pipe.

Second, you have to actually be using the camera effectively.  Not too long ago, I saw a woman at a car-wash parking lot; after buffing her car to a high polish, she hopped in and rather forcefully backed right into a light pole, something that was in her view the whole time she was working on her car and which should have been very obvious in her rear-view mirror.  She was a perfect example of why these cameras are not going to eliminate back-over accidents.  You have to actually look.  Drivers. Are. Fallible.

I would even go so far as to argue that mandatory back-up cameras might actually increase accidents due to a couple of phenomena.  First, if a driver pays too much attention to the camera view and little or none to the sides as he is backing, he won’t see pedestrians approaching; he will only see them just as they enter his line of travel, when it may be too late to react.  Have another look at Hubby’s camera above for reference.  Second, as long as pedestrians feel like they can place all responsibility on the driver, they will continue to take stupid risks walking behind moving cars.  Both of these phenomena are related to over-reliance on technology, mistakenly thinking that a new gadget in the car will solve the problem of our own inattention.

In the end, technological responses like a backup-camera mandate are mere Band-Aids that don’t address the root problems:  driver attention, pedestrian attention, and common sense.

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