Published March 7, 2011, Los Angeles Daily Journal – Few things in life are more tragic than the loss of an innocent young life.  There is just something about the playful innocence, the insatiable curiosity, and yes, the mischief and trouble that causes our society to go to great lengths to protect our young.  It is because of this that we have the AMBER Alert (America’s Missing Broadcast Emergency Response) and Megan’s Law (which grants the public access to California’s 63,000 registered sex offenders), and that list is about to expand.

To be completely correct, it actually already has, yet few are likely aware of it.  In 2007, President George W. Bush signed into law the “Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act,” which aims to change the way cars are designed and manufactured to provide better protection for children.  However, because the law deferred its impact until 2011, the bill went largely unnoticed; but, all of that is about to change as the law requires the U.S. Department of Transportation to propose new rulemaking no later than Feb. 28, 2011.

It is expected that in three weeks, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will announce a major revision to Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 111 – the standard that regulates rear view mirrors.  LaHood has indicated that he is looking to require that all new cars be equipped with backup cameras to guard against what has become (or perhaps, what has always been) a serious problem with blind spots when cars are in reverse.  The regulation is being phased in September 2012 and will take full effect by 2014.

Blind spot injuries have become somewhat of an epidemic in the nation, particularly with the proliferation of larger multi-purpose vehicles.  According to figures maintained by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), on average 292 people are killed every year from being inadvertently backed over, with another 17,000 injured – 3,000 of whom suffer incapacitating injuries.

The part of the problem that is particularly troubling is that children under five, who are difficult to see and who like to hide, account for 44 percent of all backup deaths and injuries.  To make matters worse, the vast majority of accidents involving children are committed by the child’s own parent, as was the case of little Cameron Gulbransen, the namesake of the federal legislation.  In 2002, while backing out of his driveway, Dr. Greg Gulbransen accidently backed over and killed his 2-year-old son, Cameron.

Secretary LaHood has suggested that backup cameras will cut the casualty rate in half, and looks to have all passenger cars, pickup trucks, minivans, buses and low-speed vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of up to 10,000 pounds equipped with backup cameras by 2014.  And, this has the industry in knots.

By itself, the cost per vehicle to add the backup camera does not seem like much.  For vehicles that already have video screens, the cost is about $58 to $88; if the vehicle does not have a screen, it is about $159 to $203.  But all of this changes when 16.6 million new cars are factored in (the number of new cars the Dept. of Transportation believes will be sold in 2014), with the total cost reaching an estimated $1.9 to $2.7 billion annually.

Lobbyists for automakers are resisting the proposal, calling the rulemaking overreaching – and they may have a legitimate argument.  Under Executive Order 12866, the Dept. of Transportation is required to establish the “economic value of a statistical life” for the purposes of analyzing safety measures.  The Dept. of Transportation’s current valuation of a statistical life is $6 million – and that is where the problem comes in.

With a cost of $1.9 to $2.7 billion annually, the backup camera proposal results in a cost of $11.8 to $19.7 million per life saved, or about 2 to 3 times over the Dept. of Transportation’s standard – and the standard of virtually every other federal agency.  For instance, the Food and Drug Administration uses a statistical value of $6.5 million; the Environmental Protection Agency uses $7 million.  Hence, with the department greatly exceeding its own statistical standard – and the standard of all other agencies – this proposal may be ripe for judicial or congressional challenge as an administrative act beyond the agency’s authority.  Mercedes, Honda, Nissan and GM have already voiced their concerns over the proposal, and they may be willing to take their fight even farther.

LaHood appears to be undaunted by the tremors of a challenge to come, and for that he should be applauded.  Is the proposed rule in excess of the department’s guidelines?  Perhaps.  Is the mandate, as a whole, going to be expensive for the industry?  Undoubtedly.  But, sometimes good sense and common decency have to prevail over a cold statistical analysis.  As LaHood recently noted, “There is no more tragic accident than for a parent or caregiver to back out of a garage or driveway and kill or injure an undetected child playing behind the vehicle.”  With the cost of this proposal being less than the average cost of a stereo upgrade, it is time that we as a society take responsibility for protecting our leaders of tomorrow.