Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Don't Look Back

Don't look back. Something might be gaining on you. - Satchel Paige (who never owned a car with a rearview camera)

  In 2002, a New York doctor (Greg Gulbransen) backed over his 2 year old son in his SUV and killed him. Dr. Gulbransen then became an advocate for forcing rearview cameras to be added to all cars to help drivers see blind spots behind large vehicles. The law that was passed in Congress and signed into law by President G.W. Bush in 2008 was named after Culbransen’s son Cameron, ‘The Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act’.

  Two weeks ago the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration) announced that all new cars and trucks sold in the United States will be required to have rearview cameras by 2018.The cameras will give the drivers a 10 by 20 foot field of view directly behind the vehicle. The NHTSA estimates that it will cost between $132 and $142 to equip each vehicle with a rearview camera.

  There were 15 million vehicles sold in 2013 in the US. Assuming that number holds steady, a $132 estimated cost to add the rear view camera will cost almost 2 BILLION DOLLARS. NHTSA Acting Administrator David Friedman said in a statement "Rear visibility requirements will save lives, and will save many families from the heartache suffered after these tragic incidents occur".

  I’m all for keeping people safe but for 2 BILLION DOLLARS a year I was wondering how many lives would be saved. Each year there are 210 deaths and 15,000 injuries caused by backover accidents with children under 5 and adults over 70 accounting for over half of the fatalities. The NHTSA estimated that 58 to 69 lives will be saved once all light cars and trucks on the road have the rearview camera technology (which will only happen in 2054). So using the NHTSA’s own numbers, American car buyers will be paying $28.7 MILLION DOLLARS for each life saved by making rearview cameras mandatory on cars.

  I understand the crowd that says ‘If even one life can be saved no cost is too great…’ and I suppose if I was an angst ridden New York doctor who backed over his child I may want to soothe my guilt by thinking that if I had a rear view camera in my car I would have been looking at it while I was backing out of my driveway instead of texting, drinking my coffee, thinking about my day, making a phone call, turning on the radio, lighting a cigarette, or just absentmindedly backing out of my driveway the way I’d done a thousand times before. In 2006 I backed into a stanchion outside a convenience store in Grinnell so I'm not totally unaware of how not paying attention can lead to accidents but I also know that having a rearview camera wouldn't have kept me from putting a big rip in my plastic bumper.

  Now you might tell me that there are already a lot of cars with standard or optional rear view mirrors so the cost is less than 2 BILLION DOLLARS a year and I would counter that by saying that since the 58 to 69 lives that would be saved would not be ALL saved until 2054 when all cars and trucks have rear view cameras installed that the initial cost would be far more than $28.7 MILLION DOLLARS for each life saved.

  I’m surprised there wasn’t more outrage over this rear view camera mandate and got to thinking that perhaps 2 BILLION DOLLARS doesn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things anymore. The US government only spent 36 BILLION dollars more than it took in in March of 2014 which was the lowest deficit in more than a decade so 2 BILLION DOLLARS would cover about 40 hours of the US deficit in the lowest deficit month in more than a decade and maybe about 8 hours when the deficit is running at all-time highs.

  I did find somewhere that a BILLION or so dollars could make a difference. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has taken the lead in virtually eliminating polio from the planet. According to the foundation, 350,000 people were paralyzed by polio annually in 1988 but in 2012 less than 250 cases were reported. The Gates Foundation claims the cost of continued worldwide vaccinations is 1 BILLION dollars a year but is not sustainable in the long-term. I’m not sure why spending 1 BILLION dollars a year to prevent 350,000 cases of paralysis ($2600 per case) isn’t sustainable while spending 2 BILLION dollars a year to prevent 58 to 69 deaths by backover accidents is sustainable but I think the money spent preventing polio is money much better spent than what will be spent to prevent backover accidents.

  If the government wants to save some lives I would suggest outlawing cigarettes. Smoking is banned in some way, shape, or form in most countries (see it here). According to the Center for Disease Control, cigarette smoking causes more than 480 thousand deaths annually. If a tenth of those deaths could be prevented (and there are 42,000 deaths a year from secondhand smoke exposure) this would be saving 600 times the lives saved by mandating rear view cameras to prevent backover accidents. And I don’t even want to get into the cost of the medical care for all these smoking related deaths that the government is paying for or the health care subsidies being paid out for the extra premiums smokers have to pay to get their health insurance.

  If I was told that having the rear-view cameras would eliminate 90% or 85% or maybe some number some number more than 75% of the backover fatalities I might be inclined to think it was a good idea. A sonar device to detect objects in the driver’s blind spots would be more to the point and could be rigged to not allow a car to drive in reverse when an object is detected in much the same way that a garage door with an electric eye stops closing when the beam is broken. I don’t see how that wouldn’t prevent most if not all the backover accidents.

  All talk about polio and smoking and sonar aside, the fact that equipping every vehicle in the country with a rear-view camera would only prevent a third of backover fatalities tells me that it isn’t a viable solution to the problem – it is only a feel-good solution. The real problem is that people don’t pay attention. The people who don’t look around their car when they are getting into it or don't swivel their heads when they back out of their driveway or parking spot aren’t going to be looking in their rear view camera either as soon as the novelty of having it wears off. At least until they hit something or someone – then they’ll look every time.

  On Monday, I decided see for myself where people are looking when they back out of a parking spot. On my lunch break I headed across the street to the shopping center parking lot and camped out across from the Dollar Tree, taking video of as many people backing out of their parking spots as I could. I found out two very important things. The first thing I found out was that if you hang around in a Dollar Tree parking lot taking videos of people backing their cars out of their parking spaces you will get a LOT of strange looks.

  The other thing I found out is that hardly anyone I videoed gave more than a cursory glance behind them as they backed out. And that's why spending 2 BILLION dollars a year equipping cars with rear view cameras won't prevent more than third of the backover fatalities - people won't give more than a cursory glance at their rear view cameras and if they could be conscripted to pay more attention when backing up there wouldn't be even a perceived need for rear view cameras. This is the same reason that the Gates Foundation can't eliminate polio worldwide - elements in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria equate the vaccinations to a Western assault on their way of life and will kill anyone who tries to vaccinate the people in the areas under their control. And how could cigarettes be banned in a country where smoking marijuana is becoming legal in more and more states? Despite all the rules, mandates, and assistance it remains extremely difficult if not impossible to change human behavior.

  I wonder when I read this post in ten years or so if I’ll look like the people who thought the sun revolved around the earth but I don’t think so. Requiring the rear-view cameras isn’t a real solution to the problem of people not paying attention when they are backing out of their parking spots or driveways and as soon as another person with way too much time on their hands backs over their child even with the mandated rearview camera in their car there will be another costly and ineffective set of requirements that will still fail to solve the problem.