Your government, not content with having bailed out two-thirds of the American auto industry with your money, in December announced a Christmas gift for the entire industry: Mandated rear-mounted video cameras and in-vehicle displays aimed at keeping you from backing over anything. Yes, boys and girls, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, after being in business for only 41 years, has concluded that the unobservant driver might injure someone or something while his transmission was operating in reverse gear.

NHTSA has even quantified this danger, citing the following numbers in its introductory press release for the rear-view mandate. It estimates that 292 fatalities and 18,000 injuries occur while vehicles are moving backwards in maneuvers other than trying to climb an icy Minnesota driveway in winter in a rear-drive car.

The 292 deaths from being backed over represent .86 percent of the 2009 total of 33,808 traffic fatalities. The 18,000 injuries amount to .81 percent of the total of 2,217,000 reported bangs, scrapes, and breaks. For those who can't do decimal points in their heads, one percent of the total deaths would be 338 and a like percentage of all injuries would tote up to 22,170. Which means that NHTSA is assaulting less than one percent of the overall traffic carnage.

A government advertising campaign advising drivers to "Just Say No to Backing Up When You Can't See Doodly Squat" would probably accomplish just as much as the mandated camera. The device has not been invented that a driver who lacks the sense and judgment that God gave a crabapple cannot ignore. If you doubt that, consider the surprisingly large number of dunce caps it would take to outfit U.S. drivers who still refuse to use their seat belts.

Understand, please, that I am no more an advocate of backing over children, pets, and wobbly old Uncle Morton than the next selfless humanitarian. I don't even advise backing into concrete parking-lot barriers, having once done that and found the experience wanting. Here's how I avoid running into things astern of my vehicle: I check all three mirrors and then look back over my shoulder. Even the slow-witted can learn to execute this simple procedure. After all, I did.

Of course, if Uncle Morton had infantry combat training, he could slither into position directly behind my vehicle, and I would not know he was there prior to hearing his screams. A wide-angle camera might expose his stealth and save bed space at the VA hospital. That same camera, however, would do little for dogs or cats snoozing under the car.
Do rear-mounted cameras improve safety?
Yes4374 (66.6%)
No2190 (33.4%)


The NHTSA mandate will be funded entirely by the automakers, which means that you and I will wind up paying for it in the form of higher sticker prices. Ten percent of a manufacturer's vehicles must be equipped with the new devices by September 2012; 40 percent must comply a year after that, and by September 2024, every new vehicle must have rearward-view capability.

Early estimates from bloggers, doomsayers, entrail readers, and fortune tellers tell us that the new cameras and displays will add $100 to the cost of a new vehicle. Given that Motorola sold me a cell phone two years ago that can take pictures, whip up an amusing casserole, and perform non-invasive dental procedures, I suspect that $100 is on the high side. But assuming it's correct, NHTSA has just added $1.3 billion to the combined manufacturing budgets of our automakers.

That works out to $4.45 million for each fatality... if we could count on saving all 292 backovers, which we can't.

Of course, if it's your loved one being backed over, saving a life is priceless. But increased hardware expense may simply not be justified. There's a limit to how perfect is perfect, and we've seen this in the radical environmentalists' mindless and continuing assault on diesel engines, which are far cleaner than most of their detractors' teeth.

But after all, that's just money. It's yours and mine, of course, but in the greater scheme of things (and if you don't think "scheme" is the right word where Congress is concerned, you're not paying attention) $1.3 billion is nothing in a world that has convinced itself it can deal in trillions without overstressing the ship of state's bilge pumps.

Of greater interest to me is the question whether a rear-mounted camera is the kind of thing in which NHTSA should even involve itself. Seat belts, about which those who overdo free choice ranted and railed way back when, have proved to be essential to highway safety, a big point in NHTSA's favor. Yet, the government mandated airbags that routinely kill and maim, but refused to give even attaboy points for the installation of six-point seat belts.

The high-mounted brake light is another costly mandate that I doubt saved a whole lot of lives. And I lived for 25 years in Michigan and know that, from a visibility standpoint, the things work. So would sending up a flare every few minutes when it's snowing.

In the overall world of highway safety, the greatest recent strides have been made in three areas, two of them non-hardware in nature. We are killing one hell of a lot fewer of our citizens in alcohol-related accidents than we once did. Although these fatalities remained mired at around 12,000-13,000 for most of this century, they dropped to fewer than 11,000 in 2009 and are half what they were a quarter-century ago.

Overall fatalities have declined about 25 percent in recent years, and my seat-of-the-trousers research attributes much of this to reduced drinking and increased seat belt use (now at record levels). The third area, improved crash-worthiness, has played a significant part, but if every manufacturer had followed the lead of Mercedes-Benz and Volvo, that could have been easily done without thousands of bureaucrats issuing frequently onerous standards and mandates.

So, spend if you must your country's coin on cameras and dash displays, but where rear vision is at issue, we'd be just as effective and far more efficient if we just looked over our shoulders.