Watch Your Back
Rearview Cameras Help Avoid Obstacles, Accidents and Tragedy
The methodical march of technology into automobiles primarily means you don't have to do things you used to do: dial a number on a cell phone keypad when you can just say it aloud using voice control, read a paper map when you can simply punch a destination into a nav system, bring a bunch of CDs along on a trip when you can slip an iPod into your pocket. Or get out of your car to make sure there's nothing in the way before backing up when you can glance at a rearview camera.
Rearview cameras debuted on luxury vehicles and then migrated to SUVs and minivans out of necessity and, unfortunately, tragedy. Now the feature is available on smaller and more modestly priced vehicles such as the Acura TSX and Toyota Prius.
Safety advocates are pushing for rearview cameras — and similar technologies that warn drivers of people in their rearward path — to become even more prevalent. In the meantime, automakers have added more bells and whistles to their rearview camera systems to better let drivers avoid accidents and expensive scrapes or ease into a tight parking spot.
A Spike in "Backover" Fatalities
According to Janette E. Fennell, founder and president of the nonprofit auto-safety advocacy group KidsAndCars.org, the advent of rearview cameras coincided with the rise in sales of SUVs — and in deaths due to "backover" accidents. "It's when we saw the SUV craze take off that we saw a huge spike in backover fatalities," Fennell said. "That became the vehicle of choice for parents, and rearview cameras are still the most useful in those behemoths."
KidsAndCars was instrumental in getting Congress to pass the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Act of 2007, which requires the federal government to track "non-traffic" auto accidents such as backovers and also calls for carmakers to offer technology to help reduce "blind zones" behind a vehicle.
As evidence of the scope of the problem, Fennell points to the most recent National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics showing that 221 people were killed in backover accidents in 2007 and approximately 14,000 were injured, and that 99 of the fatalities and about 2,000 injuries were to children under 14 years of age.
"We feel that it's very important to be able to see behind you when you're backing a 4,000-pound lethal weapon," Fennell said. "Our goal is to protect everyone, but particularly children who zip behind a car because they think Mom and Dad will leave them or to give Grandma another kiss good-bye."
An Extra Set of Eyes
But you don't have to buy a new car to get an extra set of eyes looking out for people and objects in your path when you back up. Aftermarket rearview cameras are available at a variety of prices and with a wide range of configurations. Audiovox's CMOS2 color rearview camera, for example, retails for $150 uninstalled, it's compatible with any in-dash monitor with RCA inputs and it has five different mounting options. Or the company's ACA250 is a $119 DIY kit that comes with a camera that attaches to a license plate and a 2.5-inch color monitor that wirelessly displays images from it.
Automakers offer the most advanced rearview camera systems and, having started to recognize that blind zones can exist all around the body of a car, have added "multiview" cameras as a result. Plus, carmakers have increasingly layered their rearview camera systems with extra safety and convenience features.
Jumbo SUVs are the best candidates for the more elaborate camera systems that give the driver a better view around the vehicle. One of the first to offer the feature was the Lexus LX 570. Its wide-view front and side monitor uses cameras mounted in the front grille and on the passenger-side exterior mirror that can be activated at speeds of less than 7.5 mph, with images displayed on an in-dash monitor.
Front cameras allow the driver to see around obstacles such as a wall or shrubbery or when entering traffic at a blind intersection, while the side camera can help them inch the vehicle close to a curb or avoid rocks and other debris during off-road driving.
The 2010 Lexus HS 250h has a wide-view front monitor that uses a camera mounted in the grille to allow a driver to see what's coming from either side at a blind intersection. The multicamera system that's available as an option on the 2009 BMW 7 Series also allows you to see around corners and has a camera positioned on each front fender near the wheelwells.
Several automakers — including Chevy, Ford, GMC and Mazda — have started putting the monitor for a camera system in the rearview mirror, and similar applications are also available from the aftermarket. Not only does this mean a vehicle doesn't need an in-dash monitor, but it's a more natural position. "Some people have been critical of dash-mounted monitors because you have to look down, and that may take away from your peripheral vision," said Fennell. "But we're all used to looking in a rearview mirror when backing up."
Stay Inside the Lines
Infiniti allows the driver to not only see behind and in front of a vehicle, but on all sides using a unique "bird's-eye" perspective. The Around View Monitor that's standard on the FX50 and an option on the FX35 employs four exterior cameras to provide a 360-degree overhead view that's displayed on the vehicle's in-dash monitor.
The Around View Monitor system can also be configured to show front or passenger-side views in addition to the overhead perspective, and it works in conjunction with sonar sensors that give visual warnings on the monitor as well as audible alerts to let a driver know how close they are to an object.
Along with such proximity sensors, some automakers also offer parking aids to further help a driver avoid obstacles. These typically consist of "guide lines" that show a car's intended path, and some vehicles also include distance guidelines so drivers can better gauge how far they are from an object.
Don't Back Up Without It
While all of this technology makes it easier to back up and park without worrying about hitting something or someone, it's no substitute for being aware of what's around you. In fact, these devices all typically employ some sort of warning to that effect when they are activated.
As with most technologies, once you get used to using a rearview camera it's hard to go back to getting out of the car — or, worse, just guessing and hoping that your path is free and clear. "I love the technology," said KidsAndCars' Fennell. "And I've found that people who have a car with a rearview camera never again want to drive a vehicle without one."
In addition to the convenience factor, there's this sobering statistic to consider: According to Fennell, 50 children every week are backed over in the U.S., and at least two of those are fatalities. "If that's not bad enough," she added, "in over 70 percent of these cases it's a direct relative that's behind the wheel. The people who love them the most are suddenly responsible for their deaths."