Saving lives

It's a horror story, the nightmare of any parent, myself included. Lynnea Zweigle, only 22 months old, died on November 8, 2005 when an F-250 refuse truck backed over her after picking up trash at her home.

It's a horror story, the nightmare of any parent, myself included. Lynnea Zweigle, only 22 months old, died on November 8, 2005 when an F-250 refuse truck backed over her after picking up trash at her home. Here's the worst of it: technology could have saved her.

This tragedy started when D.J. Zweigle assembled her three children in the front yard of her home as she prepared to take one to an art class. Like a lot of parents, she popped back inside to retrieve a blanket and sippy cup from the house — it just takes a few minutes.

But while she was inside, a truck from the local refuse company pulled into her driveway, collected her trash, and started to back out. The driver didn't see Lynnea; she was killed instantly.

As part of a legal settlement, the refuse company must install rear video camera systems on all of its trucks, explained Fabrice Vincent, an attorney for Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein, which represented the Zweigles. Lynnea's parents want to make sure something like this doesn't happen again. Their goal is to get the entire vehicle manufacturing industry to install rear camera systems and sensors on all products.

Sadly, what happened to Lynnea is not an isolated incident. According to NHTSA, analysis of data from 1998 indicates that back-over crashes cause at least 183 fatalities annually, with many of victims children. In addition, they result in between 6,700 and 7,419 injuries every year, NHTSA said.

According to Vincent, research by the non-profit organization “Kids and Cars” found that most of the victims in such back-over accidents are under two years of age, and more than 60% of the tragedies involve a larger size vehicle such a truck, van or SUV because they have much larger blind zones.

“Automobile and truck makers, owners and operators should take action now to stop scores of toddlers from being killed year after year simply because they were in the blind zone of large vehicles,” he added.

In fact, rear-camera and sensor arrays are relatively cheap today and are in place and working on everything from luxury cars to Class 7 rear loader refuse trucks.

A couple of years ago I spent an afternoon on a test track parallel parking a Mack refuse truck equipped with a rear camera system. I was able to park it between two other big-ticket vocational vehicles without even scratching the paint. The beauty of camera technology today is that it gives a far wider field of vision than any mirror ever could.

Even rear sensors make a huge difference. When I test-drove Buick's new Lucerne sedan, the rear sensor array allowed me to back up into tight parking slots without hitting the curb. It would have easily detected a child wandering behind me.

“Integrating a variety of safety systems onto today's trucks can really improve highway safety for everyone,” John Hill, chief administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA,) told me recently. He also pointed out that it can have a significant impact on the industry's bottom line.

The insurance industry could also help by giving reductions in premiums to fleets that install these devices on their vehicles. They already give consumers a break for installing car alarms; cameras and sensors should be added to that list.

Of course, drivers can't relax once such systems are in place. While the technology may help improve a driver's safety zone, the drivers themselves must still pay attention so they can act on the information the systems provide.

Whether the safety devices are installed at the factory or retrofitted by fleets, let's hope more of this technology becomes the norm — and soon.

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