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Backup displays best in rear mirror

By Tara Baukus Mello ·
Saturday, November 12, 2011
Posted: 9 am ET

I recently spent a week behind the wheel of the 2012 Chevrolet Equinox, and while I enjoyed the plentiful features and pleasant driving experience of this car, there was one feature I found myself grateful for every time I got behind the wheel -- the seven-inch display located in the top of the center stack in the dashboard that contained the car's backup camera.

Like many larger vehicles, the Equinox's tall design, especially in the rear, results in a substantial blind spot when backing up, so the backup camera came in handy. This one was especially good due to its super-wide angle that showed me the ground directly behind the vehicle even when the car was parked relatively flat and the ground directly behind it was sloped downward.

While I was grateful for the feature, it was hard to train my eyes to look at it when the car was in reverse. Instead, I found myself looking over my shoulder and in the rearview mirror first, then when I realized it was fruitless, I'd look at the display for the nifty backup camera. I attributed my behavior to decades of driving cars without backup cameras and assumed that if the 2012 Chevy Equinox was my daily driver, I would automatically get "re-trained" to look there instead, but now I wonder.

A new study of driver interaction with backup cameras found that the optimal location for the display was in the rearview mirror, according to Exponent, a research firm that specializes in automotive safety and analyzing accidents, who oversaw the study along with two vision experts.

In the study, drivers went through a series of driving maneuvers using three different 2011 Ford Edge CUVs equipped with different backup cameras: an 8-inch display in the center console, a 4.3-inch display located slightly higher in the center console and a 3.3-inch display in the rearview mirror. Using an eye-tracking system to monitor the driver's eye patterns and a computer that measured acceleration and braking, the study found that the car equipped with the smaller display in the rearview mirror "spent more time utilizing the display, had a higher percentage of productive glances to the display and mirrors," (and here's the kicker) "reacted twice as fast in potential accident situations compared with those driving vehicles equipped with the display in other locations."

While skeptics might be inclined to dismiss the study since it was conducted at the request of Gentex, an automotive supplier who manufactures, among other things, backup camera displays in rearview mirrors, I say, not so fast. Gentex actually fronted the cost of the study at the request of automakers, who were asking for independent research on the effectiveness of the smaller display in the rearview mirror. Why? There are a number of reasons, but a key one is that the large displays in the center console take away precious real estate for other functions that today's technology-driven consumers are demanding. It also provides an easy (and now we know effective) way to add a backup camera display to a wider variety of cars that don't have a navigation system, which is the primary use for the larger screen in the center stack.

An increase in the number of cars equipped with backup cameras will almost assuredly mean a decrease in backup accidents, which will not only help reduce a driver's car insurance costs, but will also reduce injuries to people in backup crashes. Currently more than 17,000 Americans, mostly children, are injured or killed in backup accidents each year.

Tara Baukus Mello writes the cars blog as well as the weekly Driving for Dollars column, providing both practical financial advice for consumers as well as insight into the latest developments in the automotive world. Follow her on Facebook here or on Twitter @SheDrives.

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