The Story

Reverse Sonar
October 24, 2000

Harvey Berkal

If you have young children, you may be interested in a new safety device. It's called "reverse sonar." The device warns a driver who's backing up whether there's anything behind the car.

Reverse sonar is not the loud beeping you hear when most trucks back up. That is merely a back-up alarm, to let you know that the truck is backing up. Reverse sonar lets the driver know when there is something behind the vehicle in its path. The beeping is heard only inside the car.

A few car makers are offering reverse sonar as an option. But so far, that's been limited to a few luxury models, some minivans and Sport Utility Vehicles.

Each year, almost 40 Canadians are killed in backing-up accidents. Many more are injured. Most of the victims are children.

Daylan Sinclair of Edmonton was one of those victims. The 18 month old boy was with his father in the parking lot by the apartment building in which he lived. Daylan's father was repairing the family's camper van. Daylan walked out from behind the van, into the path of a car that was backing up.

Daylan died on the way to hospital. The accident received wide publicity in the Edmonton media.

Accidents like the one that killed Daylan are happening more often. With the increasing popularity of vans and Sport Utility Vehicles, rear visibility is frequently poor.

These vehicles tend to be higher off the ground than most cars, so the blind spot in back of the vehicle is much larger.

An example is the Chevrolet Safari Van. Its rear windows are high and the driver cannot see anything directly behind the vehicle if it's close to the back and lower than 1.3 metres - or about four feet.

There are similar visibility problems for many other vehicles.

A few automakers are offering reverse sonar as an option. Ford makes it available to buyers of their Windstar minivans and some of their SUVs. It's also available on some luxury cars such as Mercedes and Cadillac Sevilles.

Marketplace asked Ford of Canada's Dean Stonely why reverse sonar is not being offered on all its models.

"We're starting to see this appear on many of our vehicles," Stonely told us. "It's on Explorer, Expedition, Excursion, Navigator. And I think you'll see it cascade onto other vehicles in the future."

Transport Canada, the government office which deals with auto safety, has no plans to make reverse sonar mandatory.

One Canadian is trying to get reverse sonar on all vehicles - new and old. Susan Alagha has started a business marketing a reverse sonar system that can be retrofitted to any car for about $250 installed. The cost is higher for vans and SUVs.

Alagha convinced the Minister of National Defence to try the reverse sonar system on Canadian Forces vehicles.

The test involved 144 vehicles at CFB Borden near Barrie, Ontario. Captain Mike Kendall told Marketplace that - as far as he's concerned - the tests have been a success. There were 52 back-up accidents in 1999. So far this year, he said, there have been 2.

"If this test continues to show itself to be as effective as it has been to date, I can see this expanding throughout the entire Canadian Forces fleet," Kendall said.

Richard Wells is one Toronto man who doesn't need to be convinced that reverse sonar saves lives. He's had the system on his car for some time.

"I backed out and...there was a bunch of kids here," Wells told us, "and one of them let go on a training bike behind me and cut the beam. The signal came on and I stopped immediately. Without the sonar system, I probably would have hit the child."

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The back-up accident that killed 18 month old Daylan Sinclair of Edmonton in 1999 received wide media attention.

The rear blind spot can be much larger with most SUVs and minivans.

Susan Alagha has started a business selling reverse sonar systems that can be installed in most cars and vans.