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By Herb Weisbaum ConsumerMan
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/22/2007 12:58:27 PM ET 2007-05-22T16:58:27

How many kids can sit behind an SUV without being seen by the driver in the rearview mirrors? This is not a trick question. In fact, knowing the answer could save a child’s life.

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According to the consumer group Kids and Cars, as many as 62 children could be in that blind zone and you’d never know it. And that’s a huge problem.

Your driveway is the last place you’d expect a child to get hit by a car. But Janette Fennell, president of Kids and Cars, says at least 100 children are killed there each year in backover accidents. Another 2,400 children are seriously injured this way each year.

It happened just last week in Covington, Wash., near Seattle. Mariana Lopez, an 18-month old girl, was accidentally run over as her aunt backed up her Ford F-150 pickup — a half-ton vehicle with a huge rear blind zone. The aunt couldn’t see the toddler, who was no higher than the tire.

“People need to understand that there’s actually an epidemic going on right now,” Fennell says. “Two children every week are dying because they can’t be seen behind these larger vehicles that we’re driving.” 

Like Mariana, most of the victims are toddlers 12 to 23 months old. They have just learned to walk and often try to follow mom, dad or some other relative to the vehicle. They have no concept of the danger involved.

The fact that it’s usually a family member behind the wheel makes this a tragedy within a tragedy.

Bigger cars are taking a tragic toll
“The problem has gotten worse with the increased popularity of SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans as family vehicles,” says Mike Quincy, an automotive expert with Consumer Reports. “Some of the blind spots are incredible.”

During the last few years, Consumer Reports measured the blind zones behind hundreds of vehicles using both short and tall drivers. Here’s the range they found for each category:

  • Sedans: 12 feet to 24 feet
  • Minivans: 15 feet to 26 feet
  • Sport Utility Vehicles: 13 feet to 29 feet
  • Pickup trucks: 23 feet to 35 feet

With some of these large pickups, the blind zone can be longer than the driveway.

The 2006 Jeep Commander Limited had the biggest blind spot of any vehicle Consumer Reports tested – a stunning 69 feet with a short driver. With an optional backup camera, that huge blind spot is nearly eliminated.

Is federal action needed to cut the tragic toll?
This may surprise you, but there is no federal standard for rear visibility. Last week, the “Kids Transportation Safety Act of 2007” (S.694) passed the Senate Commerce Committee and is now headed to the full Senate for a vote.

The bill, which covers a number of automotive safety issues, would require the U.S. Department of Transportation to create rules that would expand the required field of vision behind a vehicle.

The bill does not say how this would be accomplished; that would be worked out in the rulemaking process. But it does list some possible options, including additional mirrors, sensors and cameras.

S.694 would also require the Department of Transportation to establish a database of injuries and deaths caused by non-traffic, not-crash accidents. Currently, no federal agency tracks them.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents nine of the major car companies, supports the bill.

“We think it advances safety,” says spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist. “It’s good public policy and good for children. We think all of this makes a lot of sense.”

There’s no need to wait for Congress
Backup cameras are now available — standard or as options — on a number of large vehicles. With that camera the big blind spot in the rear disappears. Some of the safety systems also have sensors that set off an alarm if something is back there.

Janette Fennell, the Kansas mom who founded Kids and Cars, drives an SUV with a built-in backup camera. "I'd never drive a car that doesn't have it,” she told me.

As soon as she puts her car in reverse the camera comes on and automatically shows what’s behind her vehicle in the dashboard navigation screen.

You can also get aftermarket cameras and sensors. Consumer Reports recently tested the VR3 from Virtual Reality Video Labs (under $150). The editors say the wireless unit is easy to install. “Its effective enough to be an alternative to factory systems,” they say.

According to Kids and Cars, 60 children were killed last year in frontover accidents. That's more than one child every week.

Many people who know about the rear blind spot back their vehicles into the driveway. They figure they’ll be able to see anything in front of them as they pull forward. But backing into the driveway does not eliminate the danger.

"Some of the vehicles are so large and you're so high off the ground that you can't see little ones in front of the vehicle," Fennell warns.

That’s what happened to 8-year old Douglas Bransom one year ago this week.

"Douglas was the cautious one," his father, Phil Bransom, told me. "He would always ask if he could cross the street."

Douglas was walking home on the sidewalk in a quiet neighborhood in West Linn, Oregon. Phil Bransom thinks his son dropped a toy at the top of a neighbor’s driveway and bent down to pick it up, just as the neighbor was moving his SUV forward.

Douglas was hit and dragged into the street. He died at the scene.

“It happens so fast,” Douglas Bransom’s dad says. “It only takes a second for your life to change forever.”

Phil Bransom says technology alone won't solve this problem. He says people need to know where their children are when they get into their car.

"Just take the time to slow down,” he says. “Take time to think about your child being in or around the car.”

Bransom always walks around his vehicle and looks around for neighborhood kids before getting behind the wheel. He knows what can happen if he doesn’t.

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