All vehicles have a rear blind zone. It's defined as the area right behind your back bumper. And you can't see what's there. Reversing into unseen pedestrians has lead to many injuries and deaths for both children and the elderly. As a result, NHTSA is establishing regulations that require better rear field-of-view for new vehicles. (Read: "Rearward-visibility rule proposed to protect pedestrians—especially kids--from backover tragedies.")
How much of a design problem is rear visibility? Starting in 2002, Consumer Reports has measured the blind zone directly behind the rear bumper of over 400 vehicles focused on assessing child backover dangers. The tester looks over their shoulder out the rear window and reverses the vehicle until they can no longer see the top of a 28-inch traffic cone. Here are the best and worst vehicles we've tested, along with the blind zone measurement (in feet) for a 5'1" driver and a 5'8" driver.
|Best vehicles||Year||Blind zone distance, 5'8" driver||Blind zone distance, 5'1" driver|
|Saturn Sky Redline||2007||3||5|
|Mazda MX-5 Miata PRHT||2010||3||5|
|Mazda MX-5 Miata||2006||3||6|
|Chevrolet Aveo LS||2004||5||10|
|Mazda3 S Grand Touring||2006||6||10|
|Toyota Yaris (3-door hatch)||2007||6||10|
|Toyota Yaris (5-door hatch)||2009||6||10|
|Jeep Wrangler Sport Limited||2005||5||11|
|Worst vehicles||Year||Blind zone distance, 5'8" driver||Blind zone distance, 5'1" driver|
|Chevrolet Avalanche LT||2007||31||50|
|Ford F-150 XLT||2004||34||45|
|Ford F-150 XLT||2009||31||45|
|Saturn Outlook XR||2007||26||46|
|Toyota Tundra SR5||2004||29||44|
|Suzuki Aerio GS||2003||23||49|
|Chevrolet Silverado 2500||2007||31||40|
The differences between the best and worst vehicles are startling. Some conclusions:
- Small roadsters and hatchbacks typically have the shortest blind zone.
- As a class, pickup trucks (our tested trucks are all crew-cab models) have the longest blind zone.
- Styling plays a role. The Hummers, Saturn Outlook, and Suzuki XL7 (all now off the market) had high rear window ledges, lengthening the blind zone.
- The horrible showing for the three-row Jeep Commander shows that if you aren't using a third-row seat, fold it down to improve visibility. (We test with all seating rows raised.)
NHTSA predicts that most car companies will comply with the new rear field-of-view standards by making rear-view cameras standard. Cameras reveal what is immediately behind a reversing vehicle, as well as making it easier to park or hitch a trailer. They are already common on new luxury vehicles and many typically-optioned midsized or larger SUVs. Like the graduated implementation of electronic stability control, this lawmaking has the benefit of driving the addition of this desirable safety device to lower-priced vehicles.
While rear-view cameras may be increasingly available, that doesn't mean they're always easy to find. As a class, pickup trucks have the largest rear blind zones, often exceeding 40 feet. They could most benefit from a camera. While all 1/2-ton trucks now offer cameras, our shopping for Consumer Reports test vehicles has shown that so-equipped trucks can be hard to find on a dealer's lot. Compared to other vehicles, pickups have a wide plethora of options, so a dealer has to choose to order trucks with a camera.
Rear-view cameras are most commonly found on vehicles with large dashboard screens, often as part of a built-in navigation system. This link between big dashboard screens and rear-view cameras is what restricted the cameras mostly to more expensive vehicles, or forced buyers to pay over $1,500 to get a factory navigation system in order to get a camera. As more and more vehicles follow the industry trend of having standard in-dash screen displays—with or without nav—backup cameras have become more readily available. Vehicles that highlight this trend are several Nissan models (Maxima, Murano, all Infinitis) and new Ford vehicles with MyFord Touch dashboard technology.
Another development that has made cameras more common is the use of rear-view mirror displays for the camera image. This gets around needing a big dashboard screen. These displays are certainly better than nothing as they will show if something is behind the vehicle. However, they can be small and hard to read.
Toyota puts small monitors—much smaller than a typical navigation screen—in some of their non-nav-equipped vehicles, including the Highlander and Venza. It works well in the Highlander. But the Venza's dashboard styling pushes the small display way far away for easy viewing.
Some companies force you to buy lots of options to get a backup camera. Even if you don't need to buy navigation, you often need to buy an option package just to get a camera. One particularly galling example is that Honda forces you to get an Odyssey minivan—a popular vehicle in daycare parking lots—with leather to get a rear-view camera. That's a $6,000 premium over the base Odyssey.
Moreover, rear-view cameras shouldn't be an excuse for making vehicles with lousy rear visibility. The Lincoln MKT has a standard camera. Frankly, it needs it, due to a high rear window sill, small three-quarter windows, and thick roof pillars. Drivers don't always look at the screen—and they shouldn't stare at it so that they maintain situational awareness—while reversing. Therefore, styling-impaired visibility still has an impact.
Consumer Reports' testing has also found that something as simple as a good driving position contributes to better visibility. We suggest getting a driver's seat with seat height adjustment or power adjustments whenever they're available. Raising a seat height can greatly improve visibility for short drivers.
So, when shopping for a car, consider the outward visibility. It can be a real safety element not just on the road, but also in your driveway.