On average, two children die and about 50 are injured every week when someone accidentally backs over them in a vehicle, according to KidsAndCars.org, a nonprofit group that pushed the government to begin tracking such tragedies. And more than two-thirds of the time, a parent or other close relative is behind the wheel.
Now, auto safety regulators have decided to do something about it. Federal regulators plan to announce that automakers will be required to put rearview cameras in all passenger vehicles by 2014 to help drivers see what is behind them. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed the mandate in late 2010 and will soon send a final version of the rule to Congress.
Cars are filled with safety features that have been mandated by government regulators over the years, including air bags and the third brake light, but the rearview camera requirement is one of the biggest steps taken to protect people outside of a vehicle.
"We haven't done anything else to protect pedestrians," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington. "This is one thing we can do and should do."
Regulators predicted that adding the cameras and viewing screens will cost the auto industry as much as $2.7 billion a year, or $160 to $200 a vehicle. The cost will be passed on to consumers through higher prices, but regulators say that 95 to 112 deaths and as many as 8,374 injuries could be avoided each year by eliminating the wide blind spot behind a vehicle. Government statistics indicate that 228 people of all ages - 44 percent of whom are under age 5 - die every year in backover accidents involving passenger vehicles. About 17,000 people a year are injured in such accidents.
"In terms of absolute numbers of lives saved, it certainly isn't the highest," Mr. Ditlow said. "But in terms of emotional tragedy, backover deaths are some of the worst imaginable. When you have a parent that kills a child in an incident that's utterly avoidable, they don't ever forget it."
Although they account for a small fraction of the deaths that result from automobile crashes, backovers are the most common cause of off-road deaths involving children and vehicles. As vehicles have become larger and designed to better protect occupants, drivers' ability to see any people or objects behind them has been reduced, said Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing at Edmunds.com.
"Over time, the beltlines have risen, and the glass has gotten a little smaller in the interest of safety," Mr. Edmunds said. "There's certainly been a lot of attention paid to safety, but visibility hasn't necessarily been lumped in the same way."
Edmunds now measures the size of the blind spot behind each new vehicle, based on how far back the driver can see a mannequin designed to resemble a small child. Although many backover incidents involve S.U.V.'s and trucks, Mr. Edmunds said some of the biggest blind spots are on passenger cars where the trunk has a high deck lid and the driver sits low to the ground.
For the Cadillac CTS-V coupe, Edmunds measured a blind spot 101 feet long, compared with about 40 feet for minivans from Toyota and Honda.
Automakers have generally supported the requirement, while some took issue with technical aspects of the backup camera proposal and the added cost. "We've had longstanding support for efforts to increase the field of view for these vehicles," said Wade Newton, of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Regulators studied other ways of improving rear visibility, including the beeping radar-based sensors that many vehicles already offer. But they determined that the sensors often did not detect moving people, especially children. Drivers also responded better to the camera image than the audio alerts.
"Video camera-based systems are by far the most comprehensive and cost-effective currently available solution for reducing backover crashes, fatalities and injuries," according to NHTSA.