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Warnings Sought for Vehicles Backing Up

Dec 11, 2004 | AP

Dianne Anthony didn't know her toddler son had wandered out of the house one rainy morning in March 2003. She backed up the family van and felt a bump.

Thinking she had run over her railroad ties lining the driveway, she pulled forward and backed up again. And again. Then she realized the horrible truth: She had run over her son.

Matthew's liver was nearly sliced in two, his intestines were ruptured and the femur on one leg was broken. He was hospitalized for nearly two months, but recovered and now is a bubbly 3-year-old.

About 120 people are killed and more than 6,000 injured each year by vehicles that back over them, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Most victims are very young or very old.

Safety advocates want NHTSA to study the issue more closely and consider a requirement that automakers include devices to warn drivers when something comes into their path as they back up.

About 20 percent of 2005 model year vehicles offer cameras or sensors mounted on the back bumpers. The sensors beep warnings, and the cameras transmit images to screens on the dashboard or rearview mirror.

"If anybody had offered me a sensor when we bought that van, even for a couple of thousand dollars, I'm sure I would have gotten that," said Matthew's father, Paul Anthony of Sycamore Hills, Mo.

Backup aids aren't always marketed as safety devices, so they can be difficult for consumers to spot in brochures. For example, the Toyota Sienna minivan's sensor is called "intuitive parking assist" and comes standard only on the luxury model.

On the Lexus RX330 sport utility vehicle, a camera is included if owners buy a $6,790 DVD navigation package. Forty percent of RX330 owners bought the package last year, the company said.

Most automakers offer sensors on at least some models, including Audi, BMW, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Porsche, Volkswagen and Volvo.

Several companies sell cameras, which can be installed for around $1,000, and sensors, around $400 or less. HitchCam, a 5-year-old company based in Commerce, Calif., that sells both devices, has seen sales jump 43 percent in the last year, spokesman Roger Hooker said.

NHTSA, which sets vehicle standards, is a long way from mandating cameras or sensors. Spokesman Rae Tyson said the agency believes the technology remains too expensive and may not always be reliable.

"It's a potential problem because it might lull people into thinking there's nothing behind them when there might be," Tyson said.

Safety advocates, including the consumer group Public Citizen and the child advocacy group Kids and Cars, want NHTSA to study the issue more. A transportation bill that would have required the agency to study the issue died in Congress, so safety advocates will have to try again next year.

R. David Pittle, senior vice president of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine, said he thinks cameras are more reliable than sensors but acknowledged their cost is prohibitive. Pittle said that would change if automakers produced more cameras and made them standard.


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