Will a required rearview camera feature save lives?

Rick Kranz is product editor for Automotive News
How much will a vehicle camera and video screen cost consumers?

Well, that is one of the issues. The real issue is: will it reduce fatalities?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration today proposed requiring a backup camera on some new vehicles beginning in 2012. The purpose is to prevent drivers from running over pedestrians, primarily children and the elderly. The agency says nearly 300 people are killed annually.

According to NHTSA, 10 percent of new vehicles would have to comply by September 2012, 40 percent by September 2013, and 100 percent by September 2014.

The technology NHTSA is proposing isn't new. A wide-range of vehicles already offer it.

For example, the feature was available as a standalone option on the 2010 Chevrolet Equinox. The sticker price was $320. For 2011, the system is part of the Driver Convenience Package, an $845 option that also includes an eight-way power front driver's seat and remote start.

The camera is mounted near the license plate. The video monitor is incorporated in the inside rear view mirror. When the vehicle's transmission is in reverse, approximately one-half of the mirror area turns into a video monitor. It's pretty cool technology.

However, there are two short comings to this system I noticed when driving a vehicle equipped with this option.

First, the image is small - it is the depth of the rearview mirror. It can be difficult to see everything behind the vehicle. A larger monitor placed in the instrument panel resolves that issue, but of course, that would increase the consumer's cost, but maybe not that much.

A trip to Costco provides a good lesson in how the cost of video monitors has dramatically decreased over the past two years.

Second, on a bright sunny day, with the vehicle in the direction of the sun, it sometimes can be difficult to clearly see the screen that is incorporated in the rearview mirror and determine if a dog, bike or child is near the rear bumper. Relocating the screen to the instrument panel resolves that issue, too.

Requiring a camera and video monitor is not the solution if some vehicle owners can't clearly see the images on the screen. If they can't, they won't use the system and fatalities will continue.