On average, two children die and about 50 are injured every week when someone accidentally backs over them, according to KidsAndCars.org, a nonprofit group that pushed the government to begin tracking such tragedies. And more than two-thirds of the time, a parent or other relative is behind the wheel.
Now, auto safety regulators have decided to do something about it. Federal regulators plan to announce this week that automakers will be required to put rearview cameras in all passenger vehicles by 2014 to help drivers see what is behind them. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which proposed the mandate in late 2010, is expected to send a final version to Congress on Wednesday.
Cars are filled with safety features that have been mandated by government regulators over the years, including air bags and the Liddy Light, the third brake light named for Elizabeth Dole, who made it standard as secretary of transportation in the 1980s.
But the rearview camera requirement is one of the biggest steps taken to protect people outside of a vehicle.
"We haven't done anything else to protect pedestrians," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington. "This is one thing we can do and should do."
A spokeswoman for the highway traffic safety agency declined to comment before the new rule was announced.
However, in a preliminary version circulated for public comment, regulators predicted that adding the cameras and viewing screens will cost the auto industry as much as $2.7 billion a year, or $160 to $200 a vehicle. At least some of the cost is expected to be passed on to consumers.
But regulators say that 95 to 112 deaths and as many as 8,374 injuries could be avoided each year by eliminating the wide blind spot behind a vehicle. Government statistics indicate 228 people -- 44 percent of whom are under age 5 -- die every year in back-over accidents involving passenger vehicles. About 17,000 people a year are injured in such accidents.
"In terms of absolute numbers of lives saved, it certainly isn't the highest," Ditlow said. "But in terms of emotional tragedy, back-over deaths are some of the worst imaginable. When you have a parent who kills a child in an incident that's utterly avoidable, they don't ever forget it."
Automakers began offering backup cameras only about a decade ago, by using the in-dash navigation screens that had become popular on luxury models. The feature has become increasingly popular as companies found more inexpensive ways to display camera images to a driver, such as on a screen hidden in the rearview mirror.
For this model year, 45 percent of vehicles offer a rearview camera as standard equipment, according to the automotive research website Edmunds.com. It is an optional feature on 23 percent of models.
Safety advocates said a mandatory camera is long overdue. "We wouldn't buy a car if we couldn't see 30 or 40 feet going forward," said Janette Fennell, the founder of KidsAndCars.org. "We're taking this big lethal weapon going in reverse, and we can't see."