DOT issues rear-visibility safety rule — finally

When an essential consumer safety rule is issued after a prolonged delay, do you cheer the life-saving rule, or bemoan the delay? For me, some of each.

We've posted before about the problem of deadly "backover" crashes (collisions in which a vehicle moving in reverse strikes a person behind the vehicle, whom the driver can't see in the mirrors or out the windows because of large blind zones behind all vehicles). In 2008, Congress passed the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act requiring the Department of Transportation to act to reduce these types of crashes by imposing a rear visibility safety standard by 2011. The measure was uncontroversial and bipartisan: each year, backovers kill more than 200 people, a majority of them either children under 5 or elderly, and injure 15,000. But DOT stalled and stalled, notifying Congress on four separate occasions that it would be delaying the rule. In June 2013, even though a draft final rule had been pending at the White House for over a year, DOT told Congress it did not expect to complete the rule until January of 2015 — which would be almost 7 years after the Gulbransen Act, and which would mean DOT had taken more than twice as long as Congress intended to issue the rule.

Represented by Public Citizen, a group of safety advocates — including Dr. Greg Gulbransen, whose son Cameron was killed in a backover crash; Sue Auriemma, whose daughter Kate was injured in a backover crash; Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety;; and Consumers Union — sued DOT in September 2013 to force it to issue the rule. Briefing concluded in January, and oral argument was scheduled for April 1.

Today, on the eve of argument, DOT finally issued the safety standard, which is in most respects robust in terms of its scope and its specifications. Obviously this is a step to applaud — lives will be saved and injuries prevented by the new standard. But it is, in the words of Dr. Gulbransen, a bittersweet victory. Since Congress's original deadline in 2011, by DOT's own estimates, 600 people have been killed and 45,000 injured in backover crashes. In 2010, DOT was on track to meet the congressional deadline, but then the regulatory process broke down, and it took three years to get moving again. Why? Politics? Industry pressure? And issuing the rule on the eve of a court hearing hardly seems like a model of an administration leading the way on safety and accountability — rather, it feels like the administrative was backed into a political and/or judicial corner and finally gave up. This thoughtful story by the L.A. Times covers the various angles.

In the main, today's rule is a win for public safety and cause for celebration. It is a testament to the hard work and years of diligence by advocates such as our courageous petitioners Greg Gulbransen and Sue Auriemma, and the safety organizations educating the public and pushing hard for congressional and then administrative action. But there was no reason the public should have had to wait so long for the final result. We need to keep fighting to make our executive agencies more responsive and more responsible.