Blind Man Driving

Remember when you could actually see out of the back window?

Back in the day, rear windows were for actually having a view of what was going on behind the car. Now they're more of a nostalgic style trend that is steadily shrinking in both size and design relevance. Drivers, meanwhile, are left blind.
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The more I test drive new cars, the more I realize that rear visibility is becoming an afterthought. Rear windows are shrinking and the rear view mirror is becoming more obstructive as its usefulness fades.

Here's a for instance: we own a 2000 Honda Civic LX and it has great rear visibility through both the rear-view mirror and the side mirrors. Fast forward 12 years to the roughly comparable (in size and shape) 2012 VW Passat TDI currently in my driveway as a loaner. The rear view mirror is almost entirely useless on this car, putting all of the emphasis on the side mirrors for rear visibility. What's worse is that turning your head to the left to see over your shoulder in a lane change presents you with a huge door pillar so you see “ABS Airbag” stamped into the plastic fitting, but no road.

It's nice to know that airbag is there, though, to cushion me when I turn into some poor slob who's driving in my left-side blind spot..

Many people, when asked about this, are nonchalant about the problem of rear visibility. Truckers and former truck drivers, such as myself, however, are extremely sensitive and even paranoid about it. “If you can't see it, you'll hit it,” said my driving instructor during my trucking school days. “So get out and make sure it isn't there first. The fastest way to get fired is to be a lazy backup artist.” I pointed out that showing up to work drunk might be faster, but Harry just gave me the evil eye he usually favored me with and went on with the lesson in safety.

Many new cars are attempting to make up for this extreme safety hazard by including backup cameras so that you can see behind you via a dash-mounted screen – usually the central console TV-sized all-in-one screens new cars like to sport. The problem? These make you look DOWN instead of back and they also tend to get drivers in the habit of not using the side mirrors when backing, focusing our attention on the little 7” square television instead. Personally, when I use these, I'm always waiting for one of the Muppets to pop up for entertainment.

“Mahna mahna.. you're backing up! Mahna mahna.. don't hit that pole! Mahna mahna.. you're backing up, you're backing, you're backing up.. right.. now.”

Those backup cameras also don't do much for you when you're actually driving. So why are rear windows shrinking? Mostly it's aerodynamics, but new safety standards are to blame as well.

The more slithery shape of today's cars means that they have a steeper slope to the roofline, especially at the rear, giving air an easier path towards the tail. This creates a steeper angle for the back glass, which in turn shortens its viewable area.

Safety requirements make some of the car's pillars wider to accommodate airbags. Many manufacturers are lightening the strength in the door pillars and thickening the rear pillars to compensate. This further shrinks rear visibility, but makes it easier to retain style and a sense of openness in the cabin by making the central pillars thinner.

Design trends are further shrinking glass too, as a look at the current lineup of sedans from most of the major manufacturers will show. To improve side impact safety, the belt line (door height) was raised on most smaller and medium-sized cars. This lead to a trend of narrowing (“slitting”) the side and rear windows to give an overall impression of sleek speed.

So will this trend reverse itself? It doesn't appear to be in the works. If anything, it's continuing and will eventually lead to the near or total elimination of the back window. The rear view mirror, of course, will remain since it's required by highway safety laws – which change at a rate comparable to a Smart ForTwo attempting to merge onto the freeway.

Which may be a good thing, since those who shave or put on makeup during their commute will still have that handy tool centered on their windshield. You know. For safety.


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Comments

You hit the nail on the head. I've been driving a 2000 Saturn SL-2 with an extra wide auxiliary rear-view mirror for the past 13 years. Just test-drove three comparably-sized 2013 hatchbacks (1 Huyndai and 2 Toyotas) today. It was very hard to back into a parking space with each one. Now considering getting a major tune-up for the Saturn and keeping it as long as I possibly can.
Boy, I so empathize with you! I have a 2000 Focus station wagon and it really needs to go. I went to the store to buy a car today. My husband got himself one and I came home driving... my old Focus. All the damn cars have slits in the back--I don't call those dark, narrow "arrow-loops" windows, because they aren't! I tried one and couldn't figure the camera-aided backing up! (I can speak 5 languages fluently, yet can't drive on of those things?) So aggravating! We'll have to look for an old car for me.
PS: I just remember another problem I have with new cars. I am 6'1" and all the new things are squashed, very low. In some I tried today, the top of my head was stuck against the car's roof!
I WAS IN AN ACCIDENT WHICH TOOK MY PRISTINE 2006 GRAND CARAVAN...I ENDED UP GETTING A VERY USED 2007 VAN BECAUSE I NEEDED THE EXACT SETUP TO DRIVE COMFORTABLY...I AN SHORT AND DISABLED AND OLD..I COULD NOT GET IN AND OUT OF THE NEW CARS AND GRAND CARAVANS...I COULD NOT REACH THE PEDALS OR GEARSHIFTS..MY ARMS DID NOT REACH THE ARM RESTS...I COULD NOT SEE OUT OF THE BACK WINDOWS... I FINALLY JUST BOUGHT AN OLD BEAT UP SAME VEHICLE THAT I COULD REACH THE PEDALS ETC BECAUSE I WAS SO DISGUSTED WITH THE NEW ONES.. WHEN IS THE CAR INDUSTRY GOING BUILD CARS THAT ARE DRIVABLE AND HAVE SOME STYLE EVERY CAR LOOKS ALIKE EVEN THE CADILACS...
It's so good read some verification of what I am observing now in new vehicles thanks to the new Chevy malibu rental I am driving. I have always owned older cars and was pretty darn good at backing up but I've already taken out my mechanic's roadside trash can while backing out of his driveway. I couldn't believe the poor visibility. I work for Nissan in marketing and can see the total trend towards electronic functions replacing mechanical or just basic physical, such as being able to turn around and look out the back window. Don't get me started on push to start or the dial selector, both features feel incredibly lazy and I'm operating a car not a blender. This Chevy does not have a backup camera and there are still blind spots like in any other car. Sedans are now angled high at the back and so the rear angle of visibility is compromised. I'm going to buy an older suv. I can't believe automakers get away with so many design flaws and still pass safety ratings. You couldn't pay me to own a new car.