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Driver Care - Backing Up Is Hard to Do

Why it’s true, and how to avoid needless grief

Sing the following to the tune of “Breakin’ Up is Hard to Do,” the Neil Sedaka hit from 1962:

Don’t back your car into that tree,
Don’t you ever hit my SUV.
If you do I’m gonna sue,
Cause backin’ up is hard to do.

Remember when you hit that bike?
I’m just glad your kid was out of sight.
Think of all your car’s been through,
And backin’ up is hard to do. 

We can make light of  them, but the sad fact, is that backing accidents are annoyingly common, and fatalities are not unknown.  The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA) estimates there are 500,000 backing accidents in the U.S. every year, resulting in more than 50,000 injuries and nearly 200 fatalities. Even when no one’s injured, repairs can be expensive and keep you off the road.

What makes this all the more grievous is that, according to the experts, nearly every single backing accident is preventable. So while it behooves us all to refresh ourselves on how to make sure we don’t add to the statistics, it may also help to realize why backing is such a driving – dare we say it? – pain in the rear.

It’s humanly “bass-ackwards”

When you drive forward, your hands are in front of you, between where you sit and where you’re going, so it’s pretty easy to line up your hands with your intended direction.  But when you’ re backing up and (properly) looking to the rear, your hands are behind you, and it feels like you have to turn the wheel in the opposite direction of where you want to go.  As a result, most of us wiggle the wheel and the vehicle in both directions until our brain gets the message as to which way you actually go when you turn the wheel one way or the other.  Even after we figure it out, steering is less precise.

Your rear “blind zone” is bigger Forward and aft, every vehicle has a “blind zone,” a part of the pavement the driver can’t see because the vehicle is blocking the view.  But with more of the vehicle between the driver and the rear, the backward blind zone is bigger than the one in front.  That creates more space for things like the very edge of another vehicle, fire hydrants, bicycles and children to occupy without your notice.

You’re car isn’t engineered for the best backward travel
Considering that  close to 100 percent of the miles we ever drive are moving forward, it’s no wonder that cars are built to travel better in that direction than to the rear.  But look at what that means:

  • When you’re driving forward, if you let go of the steering wheel while it’s aimed left or right, your vehicle’s forward momentum will pull the wheel back to center.  Not so when you’re driving backward.  Lose your grip on the steering wheel, and your vehicle will move further to the left or right.
  • Forward motion takes advantage of a feature of vehicle suspension called “caster,” which makes your car more stable, but does just the opposite in reverse, making your vehicle harder to control.  The faster you go in reverse, the more unstable your vehicle becomes.

How to do it right

Given all of these pitfalls, here’s what you need to do to avoid a backing collision:

 Before you get into your vehicle, walk around it to see what’s behind it.

  • Turn your head to look directly out of the rear window to see where you’re going. Don’t just rely on your mirrors.
  • Scan around to be sure a pedestrian or another vehicle isn’t heading toward you.
  • Back s-l-o-w-l-y, especially when you’re turning the wheel.  If you’re going off line, ease off the gas until you’re back on track.
  • Be patient, and be prepared to stop at the first sign of danger.