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Safety Advocates Decry Back-Over Deaths

Solutions Sought For Blind Spots

By Greg Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2005; Page A08

Nearly 100 children under age 4 were hit and killed while walking or riding bikes on U.S. roadways last year. Almost the same number died in parking lots and driveways when relatives or family friends accidentally backed over them, but those deaths went uncounted by federal regulators, safety advocates said.

The government agency that ensures traffic safety doesn't track victims of back-over accidents, usually small children run over by family members who don't see them behind minivans and SUVs with limited rear visibility. The number of such deaths nationwide has averaged at least two a week for the past couple of years, according to a children's safety group that compiles numbers from media coverage.

Janette Fennell, with children Noah, center, and Alex, leads Kids and Cars. (Charlie Riedel -- AP)

An unexplained spike in the incidents has occurred this month, according to Janette Fennell, founder of the advocacy group Kids and Cars. Fennell has registered 14 back-over deaths in the past three weeks, most involving very young children who died from their injuries: a 17-month-old Wisconsin boy backed over by his uncle during a family birthday party, a 14-month-old Texas girl backed over by her grandmother in the driveway, a 2-year-old South Carolina girl backed over by her father.

Safety advocates say there are relatively simple and inexpensive ways to solve the problem, including placing small cameras on rear bumpers. Legislation before Congress would require the government to study the issue and the auto industry to take steps to address it.

"This is fixable," said Sally Greenberg of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports magazine. "Every year, year in and year out, we're going to see many, many children backed over and killed unless we do something."

Cases such as that of Adrianna Clemens, a 2-year-old Texas girl run over in October by her father as he backed his SUV out of the garage. "It's the worst nightmare a parent can ever experience. Nobody wants to be walking in my shoes," said her mother, Rachel Clemens, who has begun a campaign to push for legislation requiring rear visibility standards in the auto industry. "We have got to save the lives of these children. It has become an epidemic and it has to be stopped," she said.

A Consumer Reports study last year found that some vehicles have rear blinds spots as deep as 50 feet, with larger trucks and vans generally worse than cars. Automakers say they are constantly working to minimize blind spots and gradually introducing technology such as sensors and rear-viewing cameras to give drivers more information, but they oppose legislation to make such steps mandatory.

"What's going to drive the increase of these safety technologies in the marketplace is consumer demand," said Eron Shosteck, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "The technology will become more and more prevalent as more consumers see the utility of it and demand it, and are willing to pay for it."

Nearly 900,000 new vehicles sold in the United States last year -- out of almost 17 million total -- included some kind of "parking sensor" that beeps to warn of obstacles to the rear, according to Ward's Communications, an automotive statistics clearinghouse.

That technology is considered a convenience and not a safety feature, because it cannot reliably detect a small child, Shosteck said.

A few 2005 models -- including some by Lexus, Acura, Infiniti, Toyota and Honda -- offer rear-viewing cameras with displays on the dashboard, often as standard equipment, according to Edmunds.com. As optional equipment, such cameras can cost $1,000 to $2,000, Shosteck said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which compiles statistics about traffic fatalities and oversees auto safety, has had difficulty pinning down the scope of the back-over problem because there is no central repository of information about the incidents, agency spokeswoman Liz Neblett said. A recent NHTSA study of 1998 death certificates from selected states estimated that 120 people die annually from accidental back-overs, mostly young children or the very elderly.

NHTSA is preparing a regulation that would set back-up safety standards for large, commercial-sized trucks, Neblett said, but it is not prepared to require changes from the auto industry.

"The technology for the smaller vehicles is extremely expensive and not foolproof, and to mandate it at this point might give drivers a false sense of security," she said. "So we're going to continue to look at the problems and at the systems."

Safety advocate Fennell, who tracks such cases through media reports and from a network of emergency services groups, said too many lives are at stake for further delay. While a bipartisan Senate bill introduced by Ohio Republican Mike DeWine would require NHTSA to study the problem, Fennell is lobbying members of Congress to force the agency to set new safety standards.

U.S. Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.) introduced such a bill last year after hearing from a constituent who had backed over his own child. While that bill failed, King is rounding up bipartisan support for a similar measure this year. "When you talk to people about it, they always say, 'Why not?' " King said. "It makes common sense. It crosses party and ideological lines. . . . It's really God's work on this one."

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