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by John Cadogan

What’s the second-most frequent way for a child in Australia to die accidentally? Here are a few of hints: It’s not drowning in the backyard swimming pool (that’s actually the most common way). It’s not being run over in the traffic. It’s not falling off the back deck or the third-floor balcony, either, or electrocution, or suffocating with a plastic shopping bag over its head while mum or dad chats on the phone.

Nope, the second-most common cause of accidental childhood death involves being cleaned up by a car in the driveway at home. This is, on average, a weekly event in our allegedly advanced society. A tragic, preventable way for a child to check out of the system way too early – which leaves indelible scars on the perpetrators simply because they are nearly always the parent, a close relative or a family friend. It’s the kind of horrific error that takes only a few unthinking moments to commit, and which never, ever, goes away.

It’s clearly an area where urgent regulatory reform is needed.

Although Kidsafe and the Medical Journal of Australia have attempted to highlight the risk to kids in driveways, the NRMA ripped open this can of worms a few years back when it released its first Reversing Visibility Index (RVI) – a star-based rating system that assessed a bunch of then-new cars and SUVs based on the visibility to the young driver of a young child standing behind the vehicle. The organization released its latest set of RVI ratings recently, revealing that many common cars are – let’s be kind – hardly designed with any consideration to offering the driver an adequate view of a young child standing just behind the rear bumper.

The RVI is a tremendous initiative by the NRMA – especially as it’s an area where there is a massive vacuum where there really should be robust regulatory standards. That’s right – car manufacturers are basically free to offer as little view of toddlers behind vehicles as they want. It means styling concerns – and not public safety – dictate the terms of car designs. Which explains the high rear boot lines and small rear windows that predominate in some car classes (like sports coupes, for example).

When I reported on the first RVI results a few years ago, on radio, I was promptly telephoned by a representative of a major Japanese car importer, whose products really didn’t rate so well, then or now. This person told me, in no uncertain terms, that the RVI was essentially hokum because there was no standard for reversing vision globally, and because the company in question designs its vehicles to meet global (and Australian) standards. Therefore, there was no problem.

This is the kind of disingenuous, zero-IQ argument (also called spin) for which morons and their bureaucracies are famous. The fact is, the car industry commonly chooses to exceed regulatory standards when it sees a commercial benefit – and the classic example of this is the zeal that surrounds achieving a five-star ANCAP safety rating. The regulatory standards for crash protection are still pathetically low (the one-star Mitsubishi Express van complies with relevant crashworthiness standards, for example).

The car industry, however, now sees the benefit of selling five-star crashworthiness because buyers increasingly demand it. In fact, a growing class of informed car buyer won’t consider buying a new vehicle if it lacks stability control and head-protecting side airbags – a very smart consumer call. (And if you disagree, just visit the brain injury unit of a major hospital. That should convince you.)

The organization responsible for the crashworthiness ratings, ANCAP, now enjoys a positive (albeit of necessity an arms-length) relationship with the car industry. But this was not always the case. Early on – before advanced safety features were proven to sell cars – ANCAP highlighted the inadequate crashworthiness of many cars that were new 10-12 years ago. The car industry dismissed ANCAP’s initiatives as misguided and alarmist very early on. ‘Smeared’ is probably a better word than ‘dismissed’.

Perhaps the NRMA is on a similar trip with the RVI. Let’s hope so for the sake of the 50+ children who will be cleaned up in home driveways over the next 12 months.

Frankly, Australian consumers are conditioned to believe regulations will protect us from defective products. Nobody, for example, expects their laptop to overheat and burn the house down if you leave it plugged in to recharge overnight. Nobody expects the kettle to explode and spray scalding water all over the family while they are awaiting their morning cuppa.

The same consumer presumptions pertain to cars – even though in some cases the standards that are presumed broadly to exist simply do not. (Take a look at the minimum standards for crashworthiness for light commercial vehicles, for example. Ask yourself why manufacturers like Ssangyong, Proton, Mahindra and Mitsubishi, respectively, are allowed even to field the Actyon, Jumbuck, Pik-up and Express for sale in Australia in the 21st Century. It’s an embarrassment that the Federal Government will not acknowledge even in the face of expert advice to act.)

Bureaucrats and PR managers can usually stump up 1000 reasons why the status quo is perfectly adequate if it suits their purposes. But the NRMA’s RVI could easily do today for child safety what ANCAP did for occupant protection a decade ago. Especially with a regulatory nudge in the right direction.

The RVI highlights a few perception-slashing results. For example: It’s not 4WDs alone that offer pathetic rear vision of young children – in fact there are many more zero-star rated cars in the RVI than there are zero-star 4WDs. (This is mainly thanks to the growing number of 4WDs with reversing cameras.) There are more five-star RVI 4WDs than there are five-star small cars.

Some edited zero-star RVI lowlights: Mazda2 (sedan), Mazda3, Mazda6, Honda Civic, Honda Accord Euro, Suzuki Kazashi, Falcon, Commodore, Honda Accord, Audi A3, A5 and S4, Mercedes-Benz C Class. Otherwise these are widely regarded as great cars…and the ‘fix’ is merely the corporate decision to fit a reversing camera on the production line. Often these cars already have in place a central LCD screen, making integration concerns minimal.

It makes you wonder. Parents, especially new parents, often put advanced safety features on the top of their list because they are coming to grips with the imperative to protect their children. What will the car industry do when the imperative to protect children in driveways blips on the public radar? I’m tipping that within a decade just about every vehicle will come standard with a reversing camera. The impact of this on the bottom line should be negligible. Anyone who suggests that Mazda, Honda, Suzuki, Ford, GM, Audi and Mercedes-Benz lack the wherewithal to integrate reversing cameras across their ranges right now is off with the fairies. Some of these companies spruik their commitment to safety elsewhere very hard indeed, remember. The reason reversing cameras have not proliferated is simply that public awareness hasn’t caught up with the problem – yet.

Protecting children in driveways is about managing risk, and the best approach using established risk-management principles is to apply safer vehicles and better human safeguards. In other words, we need safer cars driven by safer drivers in safer driveways.

That means the other issue that’s important here is the deafening silence from our state regulators. There is basically no public awareness campaign about driveway danger, and no toolkit for drivers about risk management in the driveway at home.

(An advertising campaign highlighting the benefits of walking around the car before backing out, reversing slowly with the windows down and the stereo off, and making sure you know where the kids are before you move the car would be a damn good start.)

Such an awareness campaign would be perhaps even more important than the NRMA RVI – given that the average Australian car is just under 10 years old. The upshot of which is that many of the cars for sale today – and their inadequate reversing vision – will wait patiently in driveways Down Under for the next decade and a half, requiring either an aftermarket reversing camera or a big, fat dose of parental risk management for years to come if the risk they pose to kids is to be adequately mitigated.

Instead of getting into gear on this, all we hear from our state road regulators – the most arrogant bureaucracies this side of the Tax Office – is more ‘advice’ about speed, fatigue, alcohol and seatbelts, which is nothing more than self-justifying marketing to morons. Total bureaucratic inaction on the second-most common cause of accidental death in children is perhaps one of the most glaring deficiencies in your tax dollars working for you and your kids. It’s not really that difficult a problem to solve.




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