Cameras could save hundreds of children in burbs from being backed over

The U.S. Department of Transportation's proposal requiring rearview cameras in vehicles came too late for Marlee Kalmin.

The excited 2-year-old toddled out of her Buffalo Grove house in December 1995.

Her dad, Fred, was busy rearranging cars in preparation for a family trip to downtown Chicago to see the holiday decorations.

Unaware his bubbly daughter stood in the path of the car, Kalmin backed out. His 4-year-old son was in the car when his sister was hit.

“Your whole world stops,” Kalmin said of the tragedy. If rearview cameras came as a standard feature, “my daughter would be alive today,” he said.

Backover crashes kill 292 people a year and injure about 18,000 in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. More than one-third of the fatalities — 35 percent — are children under the age of 5. Many of those deaths occur in the victim's driveway or in parking lots.

The NHTSA is proposing to expand requirements for passenger vehicles to increase rear visibility. The rule change would lead to rearview cameras and displays being installed in most new vehicles. Right now, the device is featured in select models such as the Toyota Prius, Sienna van, Cadillac Escalade and Lincoln Navigator.

“It is going to greatly reduce the number of injuries and deaths,” said Janette Fennell, executive director of the group, which pushed for the new rule.

“You will still have the human factor. Someone has to look at the camera and react. But you can at least give people a chance. When you're backing up you cannot avoid hitting something you cannot see.”

Not only do many backover crashes happen close to home, but 70 percent of child deaths and injuries come at the hands of a family member, notes.

People don't realize the extent of the blind spot behind their cars, she said.

“None of us would buy a car if you couldn't see 20 to 30 feet moving forward. They'll buy the same car and you can't see 20 to 30 feet going backward.”

Inquisitive, active toddlers are some of the most susceptible victims, according to Kids and Cars. A typical accident scenario involves two busy parents, one running out on an errand and an 18-month-old who's just learned to open the front door.

Close call

As she put the car in reverse, Mimi Qunell heard a slight sound.

Probably a shovel falling in the garage, the Naperville mother of three thought. But something made her stop and check.

There in the car's blind spot stood 5-year-old Jonathan, who was supposed to be in the house with his father.

“He was standing there, smiling at me,” said Qunell, who was shaken by the close call that occurred in late March.

“I had no idea he was behind me.”

Toddlers “can see daddy and don't have the cognitive ability to know daddy can't see them,” Fennell said.

That's the painful reality Kalmin lives with.

“I thought she (Marlee) was with my wife. Why she came out, God only knows,” said Kalmin, who lives in Highland Park now. He credits his Rabbi, Yossi Shanowitz, for helping him with his grief.

Rearview cameras “should be a must,” he said.

Jonathan's father, Darren Qunell, is also coordinator of DuPage County Safe Kids, a local chapter of a national organization dedicated to accident prevention.

Qunell not only endorsed the federal rule, he just recently bought a Toyota Highlander hybrid with a rearview camera.

“It's really useful and clearly lets you see anything behind while you're backing,” said Qunell, who also operates a website on child safety seats,

“My only real method before was to make a mental note before I got into my car. I try to know where the kids are.”

The cameras are estimated to cost between $159 and $203 per vehicle. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposes phasing in the requirement with full compliance expected in 2015. A public comment period on the policy just ended and the agency is expected to issue its new rule by the end of the year.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents companies including General Motors, Ford and Mazda, has asked for additional time, noting that there are both significant cost and technical changes involved.

Evanston Democrat Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky co-sponsored legislation that triggered the new rule, the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act of 2007. The rule is named for a 2-year-old run over by his father, a New York pediatrician.

“This would not protect against all accidents, but it's the best way to solve this problem,” Schakowsky said. “We've got all these bells and whistles in cars... I don't think it costs as much as a sunroof or excellent sound system.

“How do you put a price on saving lives?”

Until the devices are widespread, Fennell says drivers can retrofit vehicles with cameras for about $100.

Even with those safeguards, parents with young children need to keep an iron grip on them around vehicles, she cautioned. Parking lots are another danger if children break free.

“We are not going to re-engineer children, kids are going to be kids. We made this world very dangerous and it's up to us re-engineer this problem out of our vehicles. It's a moral obligation.”

  A review camera on a Toyota Sienna van and the view of a driveway from the camera. Jeff Knox/
  A review camera on a Toyota Sienna van and the view of a driveway from the camera. Jeff Knox/
  Fred Kalmin holds a photograph of his daughter, Marlee, at his home in Highland Park. George LeClaire/
  Fred Kalmin holds his newborn daughter, Marlee. George LeClaire/