What You Need to Know About Rearview Cameras

Last Updated: Mar 14, 2013

What is a rearview camera?
A rearview camera system is a safety feature that allows you to see exactly what’s behind your car as you backup. The system consists of a small camera mounted at the rear of the vehicle and a TV-like screen mounted somewhere inside the car, usually the dash or integrated into the rearview mirror. Often, rearview cameras are combined with rear parking sensors, and some rearview systems even include visual warnings or superimpose graphics on the camera’s transmitted image to further aid in tight parking situations. The rearview camera and in-car screen switch on automatically whenever you put the transmission gear selector into reverse.

How does a rearview camera help me and my passengers?
As minivans and SUVs continue to be popular, rearview cameras are getting more popular too. Even midsize sedans and full-size trucks can suffer large blind spots when looking out the rear window.  If you measure the distance between a typical car’s back bumper to the spot where the driver can first see the ground it can be anywhere from 12 to 20 feet. That’s a lot of space for something or someone to sit undetected. Plus, ultrasonic parking sensors are great for detecting large items, like another car, but parking sensors alone can miss small items or things that are close to the ground. 

According to the Center for Disease Control, between years 2001 and 2003, more than 1,700 children were injured by cars backing over them. A rearview camera can potentially prevent these types of accidents. Rearview cameras can be helpful for seeing what’s behind your car and can assist you when backing into a parking spot. For truck owners, rearview cameras are a great help in lining up a trailer and hitch.

Rearview cameras first appeared on large trucks and recreational vehicles. Most are integrated into your car at the factory, but can also retrofit your existing car with an aftermarket rearview camera for about $500, including installation.

Is a rearview camera must-have on my car?
A rearview camera is probably not a must-have feature for most people. But the added safety means new-car shoppers should give it serious consideration. If you drive a van, pickup, or SUV, a rearview camera just might be a life-saver. Less dramatically, rearview cameras are also excellent parking aids: rather than just sounding a series of beeps like a sonar-based rear-parking system, the rearview camera and monitor let you seen exactly what’s behind your car.

Honda has fully exploited the rearview camera as both a safety device and a parking aid. On 2011 Honda Odyssey minivans equipped with the navigation system you can dial up three distinct camera views, depending on what you want the camera to show you. The normal view will work for backing out of a narrow driveway, a wide-angle view takes more of the surrounding area to also show objects at the corners of the rear bumper, and a top view shows the ground directly behind the rear bumper, ideal for close-quarters parallel parking. On the Odyssey, the rearview camera is combined with an ultrasonic parking sensor system.

It used to be that you’d have to order a pricey navigation system to get a feature like a rearview camera. Thankfully, that’s no longer true; vehicles like the 2011 Toyota Sienna minivan and the moderately priced Mazda CX-7 crossover SUV offer the option of a rearview camera without having to buy a navigation system. However, vehicles equipped with both a navigation system and rearview-camera system typically have a larger screen inside than vehicles with a rearview camera alone. Expect to pay anywhere from $500-$3,000 for a rearview camera system, depending on other optional features it may be grouped with.

Not many vehicles come standard with a rearview camera but there are exceptions, mostly luxury cars and SUVs. For example, the $72,000 Jaguar XJ sedan and $57,000 Infiniti Q56 premium SUV both offer a rearview camera as standard.

For most other vehicles it’s an option. Add it to the pretty basic LE-model in the Toyota Sienna minivan line and you’re looking at $2,735 extra for a package of options that also includes dual power sliding side doors, Bluetooth cell-phone connectivity, a USB iPod interface, steering-wheel audio controls, and an eight-way power driver’s seat.

On the other hand, you can get a rearview camera as a stand-alone option on the Mazda CX-7 for a reasonable $665. Opt for the Value Package on a 2011 Chevrolet Tahoe SUV and the rearview camera is also grouped with many other features, many that don’t seem even remotely related to a rearview camera. Get the camera on a Tahoe and you’ll also get power-folding heated exterior mirrors with integrated turn signals, special exterior lighting, satellite radio, front fog lights, polished aluminum wheels, chrome grille, and chrome door handles. Nonetheless, it turns out to be a bit of a bargain because the entire package cost around $2,000. Finally, Chevrolet clearly sees the camera as towing aid for this big SUV because the same Value Package that includes the rearview camera also includes a separate oil and transmission cooler.

It’s hard to put a price on safety. Yes, there’s no substitute for seeing with your own eyes what’s behind your vehicle before you move it. But the peace of mind a review camera can bring is invaluable. Like a few other pieces of new technology, once you drive a car with a rearview camera, it might be hard to live without it. The bottom line? A rearview camera greatly reduces your chances of backing over something or someone.