An interesting story about vehicle black boxes shows you what may be in store for us in the future.
Toyota’s recent recall of several vehicles with unexplained acceleration problems has sparked sudden interest in the function of vehicle event data recorders (EDRs), aka black boxes.
Most people have heard of black boxes in airplanes, the virtually indestructible data collection devices that store key operating information for analysis to help determine the cause of a crash or less catastrophic event.
EDRs are not required in North American vehicles, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has estimated that by the end of this year, 85 percent of our vehicles will be equipped with a version of a black box. (For a list of vehicles manufactured before October 2009 that have EDRs, go to http://www.harristechnical.com/downloads/cdrlist.pdf.)
Vehicles with EDRs must be in compliance with NHTSA standards by September 1, 2012.
The NHTSA ruling on EDRs applies to which data are collected, how that information is stored, and how it is retrieved. By the end of 2012, EDRs must collect information on fifteen different operating parameters, including vehicle speed, brake status, safety belt status, and air bag deployment. Additionally, if a vehicle is equipped with features such as anti-lock brakes and traction/stability control, certain related data must also be gathered by EDRs.
NHTSA’s stated goal is to have EDR data play an increasing role in improving emergency medical response, as well as to assist auto crash reconstructionists. The agency envisions the eventual development of an emergency electronic 911 (e-911) service and the enhancement of capabilities to understand crash events and safety system performance through the use of EDR technology.
That is all well and good but where are we today with EDRs? Twelve states currently have laws regarding black boxes: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Texas and Virginia. They are generally pro-privacy, with some laws prohibiting insurance companies from requiring release of black box data as a condition of their policies.
NHTSA has been pressured by several sources to proclaim that the owner of a vehicle with EDR technology is the sole owner of the data collected and stored by that technology. For example, the agency notes specifically that, “National Motorists Association commented that it is inappropriate for EDR data to be used for criminal prosecutions and by insurance companies. The Association also expressed concern that EDR data is (sic) unreliable, which exacerbates the danger of its use for those purposes.”
But the only commitment from NHTSA in this regard is to first obtain consent from the vehicle owner before accessing the EDR data. Their stated interest in obtaining crash data is to gather a snapshot of those data a few seconds before and a few seconds after a crash.
The federal agency effectively punts the ball by looking to individual states, in the absence of federal leadership, to set legal standards that would regulate the use of EDR data.
Considering that over three-quarters of the states do not have regulations governing EDRs, and that all it may take is a successful lawsuit by an insurance company, or other plaintiff, to obtain black box data during discovery, the evolution of the use of EDRs, and more specifically the data they contain, bears watching closely. The NMA will keep you apprised of developments.
This is lifted from the March / April issue of Driving Freedoms the news magazine of the National Motorists Association
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