Driver's Seat
Nov/Dec 2007 Issue
Danger lurks in driveways for young children in backover incidents

Compared to highways and busy intersections, driveways seem like an unlikely place for a traffic incident, but safety advocates are turning their attention to this seemingly innocuous spot where thousands of tragic injuries and deaths occur each year.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has been studying vehicle backovers to find a solution to this grievous problem in which motorists accidentally back over children, often their own. Using federal crash records and death-certificate reports, NHTSA estimates that at least 183 people die annually from backover crashes and as many as 7,419 people are injured.

“The pain caused by the loss of a child or loved one due to a vehicle backover is every parent’s worst nightmare,” said NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason. “My heart goes out to every family that has lost a child in a backover incident, which is why NHTSA will continue to find real solutions to prevent these tragic events.”

Because most of these heartbreaking incidents occur in private driveways rather than on the road, they are not typically included in traffic-crash fatality data. As a result, it’s difficult for safety experts to agree on the exact number of children and others who fall victim to these tragedies each year. Indeed, not a lot of data has been collected about this issue until recently.

NHTSA issued a report to Congress late last year examining the issue and found that minivans, pickup trucks and SUVs have a higher involvement rate in backover crashes than passenger vehicles. A possible reason for this finding was the greater exposure of these vehicle types to the presence of children and other pedestrians around them when backing.

Another factor linked to backover incidents is the rear “blind zone” on vehicles, the area behind a vehicle in which the driver can’t see. A driver’s rearward visibility varies from vehicle to vehicle and is affected by the vehicle’s height, length, the driver’s seating height, head restraint positions and the rear window dimensions. Even the slope of the driveway can affect the size of the blind spot.

According to a Consumer Reports study, the longest blind spots are found in pickup trucks followed by minivans and SUVs. However, the study found that while the average blind spot tested for SUVs was higher than sedans, it does not imply that all SUVs have worse visibility than sedans.

In its report, NHTSA examined the available products and technologies that can help motorists avoid backover crashes, which are marketed primarily as parking aids. It found that sensor-based systems, including ultrasonic and radar, were not sufficient to prevent collisions with pedestrians or other objects. While camera-based systems were more reliable in identifying people in the path of a backing up vehicle, the systems have limitations. The speed being traveled, the level of driver attention and reaction time all play significant roles in estimating the systems’ effectiveness, as well as the conditions such as rain, fog or sun glare.

While NHTSA is continuing to study the issue, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety is surveying thousands of AAA members who have purchased vehicles equipped with parking aids to determine drivers’ opinions of them as part of a review of their effectiveness.

Safety tips for parents to avoid backovers

Safety experts advise employing the following strategies to help reduce the risk of a backover tragedy:

  • Ensure your children are properly supervised at all times, especially wherever motor vehicles are present;
  • Teach children not to play in, under or around vehicles– ever;
  • Always assume children could be present and carefully check the street, driveway and area around your vehicle before backing out;
  • Avoid making your driveway a “playground.” If you do allow children in this area, make sure that it’s only when there are no vehicles present;
  • To prevent curious children from ever putting a vehicle in gear, never leave vehicles running, and keep all vehicles locked up tight;
  • When backing up, always know where all children are and have them stay in full view and away from your vehicle;
  • Look behind you as you back out S-L-O-W-L-Y with your windows rolled down to listen for children who may have dashed behind your vehicle– and be prepared to stop;
  • If you’re driving an SUV or truck, use extreme care when backing up because the blind spot can be quite large.

According to a Consumer Reports study, the average rear blind spot across all vehicles tested is 14 feet for a tall driver (5’8”) and 23 feet for a shorter driver (5’1”). Source: NHTSA

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