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Should poor backup visibility be considered a vehicle defect?

The Houston Chronicle recently recalled the tragic 2011 death of a 4-year-old Kingwood girl in a backup accident. Heartbreakingly, her mom was at the wheel of the SUV that killed her. She had been in the habit of running out of the house at the last minute to greet her parents or to say goodbye, and it was apparently that habit that ended her life.

This was only one of innumerable such tragedies. Nearly 40 kids under age five are injured, and two are killed, in backup accidents -- most with a parent or relative at the wheel -- reports the Chronicle. It’s common enough that it may be time to legally consider inadequate rear visibility in cars and SUVs a motor vehicle defect.

According to a recent article in the Detroit News, pressure to meet rising fuel economy standards is pushing manufacturers to reduce the amount of heavy glass in motor vehicles, which reduces visibility. Yet only 53 percent of 2013 vehicles come with a backup camera standard at even one trim level.

The Chronicle spoke to a pediatrician whose own 2-year-old son Cameron was killed in the very same kind of accident in 2002, prompting him to join the safety organization KidsAndCars.org and fight for change. After years of work, they got a new law, “Cameron’s Law,” passed in February 2008. It required the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to create federal regulations that will decrease backup accidents by February 2011.

In December 2010, NHTSA proposed its rule, which would require all new cars and SUVs to have backup cameras by September 2014. Researchers estimated that doing so would save around 100 lives a year, and the cost per vehicle was between $58 and $203.

The auto industry balked, citing cost and technical concerns, and proposed adding additional mirrors to some vehicles. The February 2011 deadline was extended to December -- then again and again. The current deadline is January 2015.

Transportation officials say that "further study and data analysis are needed to ensure the most protective and efficient rule possible,” but the auto industry could delay the rule indefinitely.

If automakers don’t have to pay the cost of these terrible injuries and deaths, there’s no incentive not to delay. Perhaps it’s time for them to be held liable for those costs by ruling inadequate rear visibility a motor vehicle defect and holding manufacturers responsible through product liability.

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