• Feb 11th 2013 at 9:09AM
  • 488
Accident investigators will soon have black-box data fr... Accident investigators will soon have black-box data from all crashes, because of a new rule set to be finalized by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
WASHINGTON – Many motorists don't know it, but it's likely that every time they get behind the wheel, there's a snitch along for the ride.

This week ended the public comment period on a proposed law that would put so-called black boxes in every new car sold by September 1, 2014. The thing is, most cars already have them unbeknownst to many drivers.

Automakers have been quietly tucking the devices, which automatically record the actions of drivers and the responses of their vehicles in a continuous information loop, into most new cars for years.

When a car is involved in a crash or when its airbags deploy, inputs from the vehicle's sensors during the 5 to 10 seconds before impact are automatically preserved. That's usually enough to record things like how fast the car was traveling and whether the driver applied the brake, was steering erratically or had a seat belt on. This data has been used recently, for example, to determine what was happening in cars before accidents when some Toyota owners were claiming their cars were accelerating out of control as they were driving.

The idea behind mandating black box data recorders is to gather information that can help investigators determine the causes of accidents and lead to safer vehicles. But privacy advocates say government regulators and automakers are spreading an intrusive technology without first putting in place policies to prevent misuse of the information collected.

Data collected by the recorders is increasingly showing up in lawsuits, criminal cases and high-profile accidents. Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray initially said that he wasn't speeding and that he was wearing his seat belt when he crashed a government-owned car last year. But the Ford Crown Victoria's data recorder told a different story: It showed the car was traveling more than 100 mph and Murray wasn't belted in.

In 2007, then-New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine was seriously injured in the crash of an SUV driven by a state trooper. Corzine was a passenger. The SUV's recorder showed the vehicle was traveling 91 mph on a parkway where the speed limit was 65 mph, and Corzine didn't have his seat belt on.

In this way, the black boxes can nail liars trying to blame their cars for bad driving.

There's no opt-out. It's extremely difficult for car owners to disable the recorders. Although some vehicle models have had recorders since the early 1990s, a federal requirement that automakers disclose their existence in owner's manuals didn't go into effect until three months ago. Automakers that voluntarily put recorders in vehicles are also now required to gather a minimum of 15 types of data.

Besides the upcoming proposal to put recorders in all new vehicles, the traffic safety administration is also considering expanding the data requirement to include as many as 30 additional types of data such as whether the vehicle's electronic stability control was engaged, the driver's seat position or whether the front-seat passenger was belted in. Some manufacturers already are collecting the information. Engineers have identified more than 80 data points that might be useful.

Privacy complaints have gone unheeded so far. The traffic safety administration says it doesn't have the authority to impose limits on how the information can be used and other privacy protections. About a dozen states have some law regarding data recorders, but the rest do not.

"Right now we're in an environment where there are no rules, there are no limits, there are no consequences and there is no transparency," said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy advocacy group. "Most people who are operating a motor vehicle have no idea this technology is integrated into their vehicle."

Part of the concern is that the increasing computerization of cars and the growing communications to and from vehicles like GPS navigation and General Motors' OnStar system could lead to unintended uses of recorder data.

"Basically your car is a computer now, so it can record all kinds of information," said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automotive Manufacturers. "It's a lot of the same issues you have about your computer or your smartphone and whether Google or someone else has access to the data."

The alliance opposes the government requiring recorders in all vehicles.

Data recorders "help our engineers understand how cars perform in the real world, and we already have put them on over 90 percent of (new) vehicles without any mandate being necessary," Bergquist said.

The National Transportation Safety Board has been pushing for recorders in all passenger vehicles since the board's investigation of a 2003 accident in which an elderly driver plowed through an open-air market in Santa Monica, Calif. Ten people were killed and 63 were injured. The driver refused to be interviewed and his 1992 Buick LeSabre didn't have a recorder. After ruling out other possibilities, investigators ultimately guessed that he had either mistakenly stepped on the gas pedal or had stepped on the gas and the brake pedals at the same time.

Some automakers began installing the recorders at a time when there were complaints that air bags might be causing deaths and injuries, partly to protect themselves against liability and partly to improve air bag technology. Most recorders are black boxes about the size of a deck of cards with circuit boards inside. After an accident, information is downloaded to a laptop computer using a tool unique to the vehicle's manufacturer. As electronics in cars have increased, the kinds of data that can be recorded have grown as well. Some more recent recorders are part of the vehicle's computers rather than a separate device.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 2 Years Ago
      And they can't stop a Car from being stolen? yeah, Right! Bet the Insurance company is behind all of this too!
      • 2 Years Ago
      One good reason not to buy a new car. I'll keep my '88 V-8 thank you.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Also so they can track where you are.................Or the bank knows where the car is if you miss a payment
      • 2 Years Ago
      Yep....just another way for the feds to tax you in the future. How...you ask?? By downloading info from the "little black box" for how many miles you've driven, during the year, and charging you a pro-rated tax on your CARBON FOOTPRINT contribution.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Just another way for the government to invade our privacy. What's next? Recording conversations that are supposed to be private?
      • 2 Years Ago
      Car thieves are already figuring out how to hack into your car computer to enter and steal your car. Maybe they can also follow your car's movements to determine when you're away from home, so they can rob you. It takes at least a day after a theft before a "Low-Jack" type system can be used to find a stolen car, which could be already disassembled or in Mexico by then, but criminals wouldn't be waiting to access the system. Also, I suppose the police can shut down or direct your car if they need to. Let's hope the law catches up and protects us rather than criminals and Big Brother.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Let's put an RFID in all citizens and have drones as law inforcement.
      • 2 Years Ago
      And there still are some out there that do not think that our federal govt. is getting too big. There are still some that need the government to wipe their
      • 2 Years Ago
      just another lost freedom one of many
      • 2 Years Ago
      "Privacy advocates?" Who doesn't want their privacy? Who wants the government (who mostly can't find the loo without a map) with their noses in my business? This is merely another straw on the camel's back.
      • 2 Years Ago
      If people would pay attention to how they are driving .Not texting, talking on the phone, and doing the speed limit that would be a good idea.Anyone AGREE,How about some common sense
      • 2 Years Ago
      They are squezing that noose just a little more on the public, so the Government knows your every move and can keep track of of you as well, and for those of you who don't believe it, just saying to everything you hear and sooner or later you will give up more then your " RIGHT'S "...
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