Greg Gulbransen’s tragedy, the death of his 2-year-old son, Cameron, on Oct. 19, 2002, when Gulbransen accidentally backed over him in his car, could have destroyed his life. Carrying his favorite blue blanket, the toddler ran outside the family’s Syosset home in the dark, getting as far as the narrow driveway before his father, who said he never saw or heard his son, backed his car which had been parked on the street into the driveway, running over the child. “Twinkle,” as Cameron was affectionately called, was dead within minutes.
Gulbransen could have quit his job as an Oyster Bay pediatrician and moved far away, where no one knew what had happened, with his wife, Leslie, and remaining son, Scott to start over. But Greg had been taught by his parents, Dorothy and Clifford Gulbransen, well-known volunteers in Glen Cove, that there’s nothing more important than helping others.
Three months after the accident, Gulbransen began what would turn into a 15-year battle for federal transportation legislation requiring car manufacturers to include rear-visibility technology — backup cameras — in most vehicles. “I decided to take my grief and channel it to make policy change,” he said.
He succeeded. As of May 1, the cameras, which were once considered luxury add-ons, are now required on all vehicles under 10,000 pounds — including buses and trucks — showing a 10-foot by 20-foot zone directly behind the vehicle.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, on average, 232 fatalities and 13,000 injuries occur every year in back-overs. They happen primarily in driveways and parking lots, when a driver can’t see the area behind a vehicle — the “blind zone.”
In more than 70 percent of these incidents, a parent or close relative is behind the wheel.
How the fight began
Gulbransen, 55, joined KidsAndCars.org and worked with Janette Fenell, the nationwide child safety advocacy group’s president and founder. “A lot of other parents like Dr. Greg had this type of incident happen to them,” Fenell said, adding that others are sometimes unsympathetic. “People say, ‘Why don’t you look behind your car?’ They don’t understand how large the blind zone is behind all vehicles.”
Fenell said she has always found it difficult to believe that “no one did this before we did — that there’s never been a visibility standard.”
There were many disappointments and delays along the way. Gulbransen said that a lack of data made the effort difficult. “If a person gets backed over in a Home Depot parking lot, it isn’t put into any database,” he said. “If they get backed over on Jericho Turnpike, it is. No one was analyzing most back-over accidents.”
He and other members of KidsAndCars.org approached police departments and hospitals, and scoured the internet for articles on victims of back-over accidents.
Congress gets involved
The Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act was passed by Congress with bipartisan support in 2008, requiring the installation of backup cameras in new cars by 2011. President George W. Bush even signed it into law, but it never went into effect because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration needed to decide when to implement it. Agency officials said they needed six more months to review the data, but years went by.
Gulbransen said that he and the members of KidsAndCars.org believed that the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a lobbying arm of the auto industry, was delaying action. “The reason why they weren’t on board was because they made more money selling the cameras as an option,” he explained.
Wade Newton, a spokesman for the AAM, stressed that automakers had supported the law, but they believed consumers should be able to choose the options they wanted to buy.
In 2011, the DOT sent a draft final rule to the Office of Management and Budget, but it languished there without action for 19 months. Then it was withdrawn.
Fighting the government
Letters that Greg and Leslie Gulbransen sent to President Obama were never answered. But they didn’t give up. On Sept. 25, 2013, Greg; Sue Auriemma, a Manhasset mother who got involved after nearly backing over her daughter; and safety advocates sued the DOT.
The suit, filed in New York state, was supposed to begin on April 1, 2014, but the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act became law the day before. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration mandated that the cameras be phased in, and that the technology be included in virtually every new vehicle by May 1, 2018.
“It’s a good feeling, and a relief,” Gulbransen said, adding that he believed the law would save lives. “I’m very, very lucky to be able to have turned a complete travesty into something positive.”
As a pediatrician, he continues to experience the emotional pain of children dying. But he is always there to comfort parents, even if it is sometimes a challenge not to break down himself.
Leslie says she is relieved that the law honoring her son is now in effect. “The best part is Cameron’s name lives on forever,” she said. “It makes me feel good that Cameron was put on this earth for a reason. He’s not with us physically, but he is, with this legislation.”
For information on adding a rearview camera to an older car, go to KidsAndCars.org.