Cars made kid-safe

May 29, 2007

Safety advocates report that April was a deadly month for what are known as "back-over accidents" with 17 children killed because the driver of a vehicle didn't see them while backing up - frequently on the victim's own driveway. Since 2000, more than 1,100 children have died in non-traffic, non-crash incidents involving cars, with about half coming from back-overs - and the fatality count has been rising.

Experts say the problem stems from the large blind spots directly behind certain models of vehicles - large SUVs are a common culprit, along with some minivans and pickups. Even drivers in some small sedans can have trouble seeing anything or anyone shorter than 25 inches tall within 40 feet of the rear bumper. The problem has become so common that it has given rise to a host of aftermarket products such as sensors and cameras connected to dashboard monitors to help drivers compensate.

But such equipment needs to be made standard by auto manufacturers and not merely offered as an option on high-end vehicles. Last year, 598 children were injured and 219 died in non-traffic motor vehicle accidents, a 75 percent increase in fatalities from five years earlier, according to the nonprofit advocacy group Kids and Cars. And that's widely seen as a conservative estimate; the government doesn't collect data specifically on non-traffic fatalities.

Studies suggest the typical victim is just a toddler. And usually the child is killed by a vehicle driven by a parent, relative or close friend of the family.

Legislation pending in Congress to require greater rearward visibility deserves swift approval. It would also require power windows to automatically reverse in case of an obstruction, and cars with automatic transmissions to have a brake transmission shift interlock so they won't slip out of park unless a foot is firmly on the brake. That's because window strangulation and accidental vehicle movement account for another 10 percent of the non-traffic fatalities.

Drivers need to be cautious when small children are around cars, of course, but the proliferation of vehicles with large blind zones - some as great as 69 feet (a distance longer than many driveways) - has clearly aggravated the problem. Fortunately, the corrective legislation has drawn bipartisan support in Congress; it was approved by a Senate committee this month.

Critics note that the mandate will raise prices (the technology is expected to initially cost $300 per vehicle, but less as it becomes standard). But in an era of seat heaters, lighted vanity mirrors and cup holders, that's a reasonable price to pay to save young lives.

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