20/20 Hindsight

After a near-tragic accident, a mom fights to require rearview cameras on autos

Susan Hampton Auriemma at her home

Her whole town knows her as the Woman Who Ran Over Her Daughter. And Susan Hampton Auriemma, J90, is OK with that. By telling her story to anyone who will listen, from members of Congress to strangers on the street, she has helped put a regulation in the works that will require all new passenger vehicles sold or leased in the United States to come equipped with rearview cameras by 2014.

That’s not to say she can recount that day six years ago without her voice breaking. She was leaving her Long Island home to take the oldest of her three children to a birthday party, backing her SUV slowly out the driveway, when she heard shrieks. She ran out to find she had struck her three-year-old daughter, Kate, who was lying bloody and terrified on the ground behind a wheel. “Mommy,” the little girl cried, “why did you hit me with the car?”

“The guilt is immediate and so consuming,” Auriemma says. “I was hysterical. I was screaming, ’I almost killed my daughter.’ ” A neighbor tended to Kate while another called 911. Even hours later in the emergency room, when the doctor told her that Kate would recover fully, Auriemma could not stop asking herself, “What if?”

For months she feared that her neighbors and family would judge her as harshly as she did herself. Then she did some Internet searching. “I started finding out that it was happening all over the place,” she says. Each week, more than 50 children nationwide are injured in such “backovers,” two of them fatally. Eighty percent of the incidents involve children under four, and most often a parent or close relative is behind the wheel.

Blind Spot

Auriemma threw herself into spreading the word about backover dangers, and is now a spokesperson and educator for KidsAndCars.org, a national nonprofit organization that works to prevent non-traffic motor vehicle injuries. She was the perfect person to dispel the notion that these things only happen to negligent people. She had bought her house for its location on a traffic-free cul-de-sac. She always held her daughter’s hand in parking lots. And on the very morning of the incident, she had protectively moved her SUV to the end of her driveway so no cars could pull in while her kids were riding their bikes there. “If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone,” she warns.

The problem is one of engineering: drivers looking through the rear window can’t see short objects—such as little kids—behind their vehicle. According to Consumer Reports, which conducts tests using a 28-inch traffic cone as a stand-in for a toddler, a five-foot-one-inch driver in a large SUV can have a blind zone nearly 40 feet long; in a pickup truck, it can be 50 feet. Small cars can have big blind zones, too: for a 2005 Volkswagen Beetle convertible with its top down, it’s 52 feet. In fact, a car is required only to have a rearview mirror, not a rear view. “You can have your back windows painted black,” Auriemma says. “That would be considered acceptable.”

Now add in the unpredictability of young children. Little Kate had decided at the last minute she wanted to go with her mother, and ran out of the house before the sitter could stop her. The scenario is so common it is known as the “bye-bye syndrome.”

KidsAndCars.org was already campaigning for rear-visibility requirements when Auriemma joined the fight six years ago. She managed to get all four Rhode Island congressmen to cosponsor a bill, made law in 2008, that required the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to come up with a plan to improve the visibility behind cars. The most effective way, the NHTSA determined in 2010, was rearview cameras.

The auto industry fought back. It estimates the cost of installing a camera at $58 to $88 in a vehicle that already has a display screen for navigation or other functions, or $159 to $203 in a vehicle without a screen—a total of up to $2.7 billion per year. Auriemma thinks that number is inflated, considering that 45 percent of new vehicles already come with cameras as standard equipment, and she disputes the industry’s argument that the cost to consumers—cheaper than some paint or molding options—is prohibitive. She points out that, according to J.D. Power and Associates, rearview cameras are the fourth-most-desired technological add-on to new cars.

Auriemma, who was a math major at Tufts and taught school before her children were born, appreciates the power of numbers: other NHTSA proposals—such as making car roofs crush-resistant—have failed because relatively few lives would be saved for the money spent.

But losing a child in a backover, Auriemma argues, has ripple effects—think of a family wracked with grief and guilt, perhaps for their entire lives, and the depressive cloud on the community. Financially, there are lost wages, lost tax revenue to the government and medical and mental health costs to insurance companies. The NHTSA seemed to agree, and now says it will issue the rule by the end of 2012.

In the meantime, Auriemma continues to tell her story, be it on the Today show or in line at the grocery store while her kids roll their eyes. Some people may judge her, but she says it is worth it when others say, “Sue, I think of you every time I put my car in reverse.”

This article first appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Tufts Magazine.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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