The results of a AAA survey of motorists who own a car with a rearview camera or a sensor-based backing aid (a device that produces warning beeps) may answer your question. Of more than a thousand respondents, 93 percent said they wanted one in their next vehicle. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) finds rearview cameras to be so beneficial that it’s requiring all new cars and light trucks to have one by May 2018. Take a peek at the website kidsandcars.org and you’ll understand why. One page is filled with photos of adorable little kids who were killed while being backed over, 70 percent of them by a parent or another relative. The website says that each week in the U.S., 50 children are backed over—and that two of them die from their injuries.
All reason enough for NHTSA’s mandate. But also think of all the damaged bumpers and fenders—that is, property damage—that could be prevented if drivers had a clearer view behind their vehicles before they backed into a post, a wall, or another vehicle.
What’s more, the potential for back-up accidents has increased in recent years. Here’s why:
An aging population. Age often brings reduced head and neck flexibility, making it difficult for older drivers to look behind their cars.
Styling trends. The coupe-like body design of many sedans these days dictates wide rear pillars and narrow rear windows, both of which reduce rear visibility.
Larger vehicles. Large vehicles often have blind zones behind them; objects in those areas can’t be seen in rearview mirrors. Moreover, vans and SUVs often have several rows of seats with a forest of head restraints that block rear vision.
The 2002 Infiniti Q45 was perhaps the first production car in the U.S. with what we now call a rearview camera—a small camera lens in the rear bumper that sends an image to an in-dash screen. Today, about one-third of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. include a rearview camera as standard equipment. But you don’t have to buy a new car to get one. Aftermarket rearview cameras are available at car audio, auto parts, and big-box electronic stores, starting at about $80.
Last year, the Auto Club’s Automotive Research Center (ARC) tested both factory-installed and aftermarket rearview cameras. They generally worked well, increasing visibility in the blind zone by an average of 46 percent.
It’s important to note that that’s not a 100 percent improvement. A single camera lens typically mounted near the license plate doesn’t see all—a cat or a child under the bumper, for example. Pavement that slopes up sharply behind a car makes objects appear farther away than they are. Snow and dirt can cloud the lens, and so on.
All of which means that a rearview camera is no substitute for walking around your car and looking in mirrors and over your shoulder before throwing your car into reverse. “The camera is only an adjunct device,” says Albert Austria, lead engineer at ARC.
But rearview camera systems are improving. Tesla and Volkswagen are testing cameras that will replace traditional side-view mirrors. I’ve recently driven a sports car (BMW i8), a crossover (Nissan Rogue), and a pickup truck (Ford F-150) with multiple cameras that give an impressive bird’s-eye view all around the vehicle. One more plus: Not only do such camera systems have the potential to save lives, they also make exiting a crowded parking lot easier and safer.