Eliminating cars’ blind spots to save lives

The government issued a lifesaving rear visibility safety rule for vehicles after years of needless delay.

  • 3 Number of years the DOT delayed on enforcing the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act.
  • 292 Estimated number of individuals killed yearly in backover crashes before the rule.
  • 50 Number of children injured weekly in backover accidents before the rule.

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 family’s 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 was not an isolated case. “Backover crashes” occurred frequently because of a big blind spot of about 10 to 40 feet behind vehicles. Each week, 50 children were injured, two fatally, in these “backover” crashes. Each year on average, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), backovers were killing 292 people and injured 18,000 more — most of whom were children under the age of five, senior citizens over the age of 75, or persons with disabilities. Most victims were 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.

Public Citizen steps in

To prevent the injuries and deaths caused by backovers, Public Citizen and other groups joined to push Congress to pass a law requiring automakers to install rear view visibility technology. They were successful: In 2008, Congress passed and the president signed the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act. The Gulbransen Act directed the U.S. Department of Transportation to revise an existing federal motor vehicle safety standard to expand the area that drivers must be able to see behind their vehicles. It also 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.”

Then, no substantial change happened. DOT initially made progress in the rulemaking, issuing a proposed rule in December 2010. In November 2011, the agency sent its final draft of the rule to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review, where it languished for 19 months. Then in June 2013, after DOT had already granted itself three extensions of the February 2011 statutory deadline, the agency withdrew the rule from OMB and pushed the deadline back yet again, to January 2015. DOT claimed that it needed time for more study – even though it had already conducted research it had characterized as “extensive.” DOT’s projected completion date was extended to 2015, nearly four years after the deadline set by Congress and seven years after the law was passed.

After it became clear that completion of the rule was to be delayed even further until 2015, Public Citizen filed a lawsuit, representing Consumers Union of the United States, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Kids And Cars, Inc., Dr. Gulbransen and Susan Auriemma, who injured her 3-year-old daughter Kate  in a backover accident in 2005.

After I backed over my own daughter and injured her, I worked to make sure this or something even worse would never happen to any other family. Democrats and Republicans in Congress came together to say they weren’t going to let these needless deaths continue, but now their will is being thwarted. Susan Ariemma, mother to Kate, who was injured in a backover accident in 2005

By DOT’s own estimates, its delay past the statutory deadline allowed between 237 and 280 preventable deaths – almost half of which had befallen young children – along with thousands of preventable injuries.

It’s mindboggling that two more children like Cameron are killed every week, yet the administration is content to postpone doing anything about it. This isn’t some technical abstraction, it’s about actual people being injured and killed. Dr. Greg Gulbransen, father to Cameron, who died in a backover accident

Finally, on March 31, 2014, one day before the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was scheduled to hear argument in the case filed by Public Citizen, DOT issued the rear visibility safety standard that safety advocates had long sought. The cost of the regulatory delay that was payed in human lives can never be amended. But the hundreds of deaths and thousands of injuries prevented because of Public Citizen’s tireless fight for rear visibility rules are a clear victory for the American motoring public.

While the administration delayed the rule, more children died in backover accidents. The cost of regulatory delay, in human lives, could hardly be more clear than it is today. It’s absurd that the government had to be sued before it would comply with the law. Robert Weissman, President, Public Citizen

Highlights

  • Congress in 2008 directed the DOT to require backup visibility technology in vehicles. Lawmakers gave DOT three years to issue a rule.
  • After DOT dragged its feet, Public Citizen in 2013 sued the DOT for needless delays, representing parents who had injured or lost their children in backover crashes.
  • DOT issued a backover standard in 2014 – a day before a court hearing in the case.