Big Brother Cars

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Is Detroit responsible for making sure you don’t back-up over your child? What if you don’t have a child?

Better yet, what if you know how to drive?

Well, it doesn’t matter. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is demanding that all new cars be fitted with back-up cameras by 2014 so as to add another layer of “for the children” cost and complexity to all new cars — like it or not, need it or not.

Apparently, it’s too much to expect pahrunts to check manually that baby snots-a-lot isn’t lying like a loaf behind the bumper of the family SmooVee — and about to get a live-axle kneading by the otherwise oblivious pahrunt, who wouldn’t remember or notice the kid was there absent an LCD display accompanied by an orchestra of buzzers and chimes. The rest of us will have to have them, too — even if we don’t have kids — and even if we do have the Mad Skill needed to safely back-up a car without running over crotchfruit and other living things.

No one knows exactly how much this’ll all cost — but $300–$600 per car is a good estimate based on what these systems currently add to the tab as optional equipment. Probably — like air bags — once every car is required to have an LCD display monitor and all the related hardware — the cost-per-car will go down some as a result of economies of scale.

But overall, cars will be getting more expensive (again) as a result of another round of mandatory “safety” equipment that some of us — but by no means all of us — think every new car ought to have.

Question: Why is it that the “some of us” have this weird fetish to force the rest of us to pay for what they think we ought to have? Back-up cameras are already available as options in many new cars; those who feel the need can buy them. Why must they force those of us who don’t to buy them also?

Air bags were once optional, too. The trouble was, almost no one was interested in buying them. So naturally, the government mandated them. And now we all have to pay for them. This has probably made air bags less expensive on a unit-cost basis, but we’re still paying a lot more for cars now that all cars have to have air bags. In effect, those who would have rather skipped the air bags and saved the money are now forced to subsidize air bags for those who do want them.

And it’ll be the same with mandatory back-up cameras. New cars will cost more; and there’ll be another potential down-the-road expense when the camera eventually craps out. And once they’re mandatory, like air bags, you’ll probably be required by law to fix it when it craps out — else fail the state “safety” inspection that many states require in order to keep the registration valid.

But what if you don’t have a child — and therefore the “safety hazard” of backing up over one in your driveway is essentially nonexistent? Isn’t requiring child-free people to buy back-up cameras a lot like requiring them to buy child safety seats?

And while installing back-up sensors on a bloated 19-foot SmooVee with more blind spots than Ray Charles may make some sense, isn’t it a bit much to demand that they be installed across the board — even on subcompact coupes, mid-sized sedans and other normal-sized cars? Whatever happened to turning your head and checking things out before putting it in reverse?

I guess that’s now Big Momma’s job, too.

Where will it end?

Arguably, there’s already too much noise clutter and digitized idiot-proofing being grafted onto cars.

Pint-sized Toyotas come with aneurism-inducing BEEP! BEEP BEEP! buzzers that erupt as soon as you put the transmission in reverse — as if a compact-sized car were some gigantic garbage scow or front-end loader that needed to warn all in the vicinity of the imminent rearward movement of its oversized, unwieldy self.

I drove a new Corvette recently. It peremptorily locks its doors — and locks you in — until you put the transmission in reverse and turn off the engine. Maybe GM thinks you might decide to open the door and jump out while the car is still moving forward?

Almost all 2011 model vehicles come with incredibly aggravating “Belt Minder” buzzers that hit you with a BING! BING! BING BING! fierce and jarring enough to trigger a reflex action such as putting your fist through the dashboard. The buzzer goes off even if all you’re doing is running the stupid car up the driveway to get the mail. Buckle-up for safety!


Only Nissan — bless their hearts — hasn’t put these damn things in its cars.


Maybe it’d be simpler, less expensive — and in the long run, produce a crop of more attentive, responsible motorists — if we quit relying on henpecky technology that assumes an ever-lower Driver IQ and instead returned to the days of expecting drivers to think, use their noggins and exercise good judgment.

Look behind the vehicle before you back up to make sure no one left a small child taking a nap behind the rear wheels. Don’t forget to take your tot with you when you leave the vehicle parked in the broiling mid-day sun with the windows rolled up.

Is it really too much to ask? Or have we become so addled, so utterly incapable of thinking for ourselves that it’s become necessary to swaddle us in “for your own good” technology and ever dumber dumbed-down, least-common-denominator laws and regulations?

One thing’s for sure: If the safety-uber-alles juggernaut isn’t derailed pretty soon, we’ll pass the point of no return when this kind of thing will become the new norm — and all us “reckless risk-takers” who continue to believe we can handle things on our own, without being herded like cattle, will be rounded up and sent to the gulag (or local DMV office) for “re-education.”

Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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