One night in 2002, Dr. Greg Gulbransen was backing up his SUV in his driveway when his two-year-old son Cameron darted out into the driveway behind the vehicle. Too small to be seen by his dad using any of the vehicle’s rearview or sideview mirrors, Cameron was struck by the moving car and killed. Dr. Gulbransen’s tragedy is not an isolated case; each week, fifty children are injured, two fatally, in these “backover” crashes, that is, collisions in which a vehicle moving backwards strikes a person (or object) behind the vehicle. Each year on average, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), backovers kill 292 people and injure 18,000 more — most of whom are children under the age of five, senior citizens over the age of seventy-five, or persons with disabilities. Backovers generally occur when the victim is too small to be seen in the rearview mirror of the vehicle or too slow to move out of the way of the vehicle, even one moving at slow speed.
To prevent the injuries and deaths caused by backovers, in 2008 Congress passed and the President signed the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act. The Gulbransen Act directed DOT to revise an existing federal motor vehicle safety standard to expand the area that drivers must be able to see behind their vehicles. The Gulbransen Act mandated that DOT issue the final rule within three years of the law’s enactment — i.e., by February 28, 2011. The Act also allowed DOT to establish a new deadline for the rulemaking, but only if the otherwise-applicable deadline “cannot be met.”
When it prepared a draft final rule in 2010, DOT estimated that the proposed rule, which specified an area immediately behind each light vehicle that a driver must be able to see when the car is in reverse gear, would prevent between 95 and 112 deaths and between 7,072 and 8,374 injuries each year. the agency has extended the timetable for promulgation of a final safety standard four separate times.
DOT failed to meet the February 2011 deadline. Instead, DOT has repeatedly set a new “deadline,” failed to meet it, and then set yet another “deadline.” Although DOT has never made a showing that the statutory deadline could not be met, DOT has informed Congress that it currently plans to issue the rule in January 2015. Assuming DOT does not again delay yet again, the backover rulemaking will have taken nearly seven years — more than twice as long as Congress envisioned for the rulemaking — at a significant cost in human lives.
In light of the extent of the delay, the repeated self-granted extensions, and the hundreds of preventable deaths and thousands of preventable injuries that will occur while the public waits for the final rule, Public Citizen filed a petition with the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit seeking a writ of mandamus compelling DOT to issue the rule within 90 days. The petition was filed September 25, 2013 on behalf of Dr. Gulbransen, Sue Auriemma (another parent who backed into her own child), and the consumer safety groups Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, KidsAndCars.org, and Consumers Union. On March 31, 2014, one day before the Second Circuit was scheduled to hear argument in the case, DOT issued the rear visibility safety standard that petitioners sought.