WASHINGTON -- Consumer groups are taking the Obama administration to federal court over its about-face on backup cameras.
In a lawsuit filed today in federal court in New York, two individuals and four organizations -- including Consumers Union, the advocacy wing of Consumer Reports magazine -- asked a judge to order the U.S. Department of Transportation to set rear visibility standards for light vehicles, as required by a 2008 law.
DOT proposed rules in 2010 that would have required backup cameras in all new cars and light trucks. Final rules were delayed multiple times after automakers and White House officials raised concerns over costs. Before leaving office this year, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood set a new goal of completing the standards by 2015.
With today's lawsuit, the consumer groups hope to force the administration's hand and make backup cameras a standard feature on new light vehicles several years sooner.
"When Congress ordered this rule issued in three years, they meant three years, not seven," said Scott Michelman, an attorney for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.
Neither the DOT nor the U.S. Department of Justice would comment on the lawsuit today.
On Tuesday, DOT gave its imprimatur to backup cameras by adding the safety device to the list of recommended features under the federal New Car Assessment Program.
The move does not impose any requirement on automakers but it "will encourage both automakers and consumers to consider more vehicles that offer this important technology," LaHood's successor, Anthony Foxx, said in a statement.
"While adding this technology to our list of safety features is important, I remain committed to implementing the rear visibility rule as well," Foxx added.
Opposition and support
The rules still face resistance from some car companies, though some suppliers stand to gain from a mandate.
Trade groups representing automakers challenged the rules in meetings with the White House in 2011, saying that backup cameras would be less cost effective than other features required in cars, such as electronic stability control.
DOT said rearview cameras would replace electronic stability control systems, which are now required by law, as a recommended advanced technology feature in the NCAP program.
According to NHTSA estimates, an average of 292 fatalities and 18,000 injuries occur each year as a result of back-over crashes involving all vehicles, the agency said in a December 2010 report. NHTSA said 228 fatalities of those fatalities involve light vehicles weighing 10,000 pounds or less.
"Two particularly vulnerable populations -- children and the elderly -- are affected most," the report said. "Approximately 44 percent of fatalities involving light vehicles are children under five -- an unusually high percentage for any particular type of crash. In addition, 33 percent of fatalities involving light vehicles are elderly people 70 years of age or older."
Cost per life
Also in 2010, NHTSA estimated that adding a backup camera to a car would cost $58 to $203, depending on whether the car already has a display screen, and would save 95 to 112 lives per year -- and up to $18 million per life.
Even without a mandate, backup cameras have become more common in recent years. They were standard or optional in 77 percent of 2013 model-year vehicles, according to Edmunds.com, up from 32 percent of 2008 models.
Trucks, minivans and crossovers, which tend to have more limited rear visibility than cars, have often been the first vehicles equipped with the cameras. But some automakers have decided to put them into smaller cars, as well.
When the redesigned 2015 Honda Fit subcompact arrives in showrooms next year, Honda's entire lineup will have backup cameras as a standard feature.
Ami Gadhia, senior policy counsel at Consumers Union, said all types of cars could use better visibility. Even if backup cameras gain widespread acceptance across the market, that is no substitute for a government mandate, she said.
"We don't see a need for a compromise on safety," Gadhia said in an interview. "We think it should be offered across the board."
Sean Gagnier contributed to this report.
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