Putting a Spike in the Spokes

E-mail Stephanie vL Henkel

The charms of the SUV continue to elude me. Trying to peer around some monster bulk parked at the corner of School and Grove streets here in Peterborough when I want to turn right without getting T-boned is a sweaty proposition. It's worse after a winter storm, when snow banks along the curbs mean parallel parking halfway into the street. And, to boot, SUVs want to flip over. Scarier yet, though, is the number of small children getting run over by those behemoths—mostly in their own driveways. There's a movement under way to require automakers to include presence sensors as standard equipment that would put a stop to these injuries and deaths.

How Many Children?
Since 2000, more than 960 tots, mostly under the age of three, have died in accidents that were not traffic related. Some were strangled in power windows; others were backed over. In 70% of the latter, a parent or close family friend was behind the wheel. In any given week, some 50 children are rolled over. Granted, those numbers are not large, but they are unacceptable because the technology exists to greatly reduce—if not take them to zero.

Why Does This Happen?
In two words: Blind spots. Both fore and aft. I suspect toddlers are backed over more often because vehicles are typically backed out of driveways and across sidewalks where tricycle riders tend to toot along. But there are "frontover" mishaps too, often with disastrous consequences. Thing is, the driver simply can't see what's directly in front of the SUV. The vehicles are very high off the ground, their hoods are boxy, and the view's not good out the back window or in the rear view mirror.

What to Do?
As I said, the technology exists (self-reversing windows, cabin alerts that let a driver know when someone or something's behind the vehicle). So far, these are available only on the high-end models. An organization, Kidsandcars, is urging the passage of S1948 and HR2230 to make them standard. Frankly, I think an alarm buzzing on the dashboard ('scuse me! the instrument panel) won't quite cut it. A barking dog in the back seat, road construction on the street, any number of noises could cancel out the audio alert. Flashing lights or other visual? Don't most of us automatically look over our shoulders when we're backing up?

A while ago I wrote about an automatic braking system available in some heavy-duty trucks, a technology I'd like to see investigated for passenger vehicles. This system stops the truck when it detects an object—or person—behind it. There's also a cab alarm and a manual override after it is activated.

Carrying It Further
Let's imagine a sensor—maybe a capacitive device—that would kick the brakes on when it detects a human or other living animal of a certain size. (Crows snacking on some roadside treat tend to leave before you get to their picnic area, and too, there might be less fast food for them if we stopped running over the wildlife.)

Most of us don't set out to run over anything. Especially children. Yet there are those who are deranged enough to deliberately plow into a crowd of pedestrians. And there are also news reports of increasing frequency about elderly drivers who do the same but without angry intent. The cause has been often been attributed to something called "pedal confusion." They simply don't know whether their foot is on the accelerator or the brake. One likely cause is spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the lumbar region of the spinal column that induces numbness in the lower legs and feet. It is typically age related and can be diagnosed by X-ray.

The motor vehicle departments of New Hampshire, Illinois, and the District of Columbia are the only ones to require road tests for elderly drivers seeking to renew their licenses. In New Hampshire that magic age is, I think, 75. It could be that in future those who don't know where their feet are might be restricted to vehicles with manual controls, the sort used by paraplegics. No great imposition—some licenses specify that the holders are rated only for automatic transmission vehicles. (I still prefer what I call a standard, but will in time learn to call it "manual.")

Summing Up
Whatever we can do to encourage automakers who offer rides in our price range to build in sensing equipment that will keep everyone safer sounds pretty good to me. What do you think? Scroll down and post your comments!