‘Black boxes’ in vehicles show the truth in wrecks
04/05/2014 6:30 PM
04/05/2014 11:52 PM
Event data recorders are similar to flight data recorders in commercial airplanes, which is how they got the “black box” moniker, but flight data recorders serve no mechanical or safety function. The primary function of a vehicle’s black box is to monitor vehicle sensors to determine when and to what degree air bags and other safety features should kick in. Automotive engineers collect the data to see how well safety features worked in crashes and to design safety improvements. Such data helped engineers realize, for example, that airbags didn’t need to be as aggressive, said Jim Harris, owner of Harris Technology Services in Florida and an EDR expert. Small women and children actually were being hurt by the force of the first-generation air bags. “Second-generation air bags were different,” he said. “They figured out that, hey, we can use multistage inflators” that can deploy less forcefully when the system detects a less serious crash or a smaller person occupying a seat. EDR information also is being cited in the debate over General Motors’ faulty ignition switches, blamed for contributing to 13 fatalities in 31 frontal crashes. As it stands, automakers install EDRs voluntarily, so different makes and models record varying levels of data. Some models provide basic, raw data and other models produce dozens of pages of details. That could change later this year, based on a proposed ruling from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that would require standardization of the data. Data are retained on the devices only if the air bags deploy or nearly deploy. Otherwise, data are overwritten constantly. The black box inside a van that struck and killed an 8-year-old boy on a skateboard in the Northland last month did not retain any data. The boy’s size prevented the vehicle from recognizing it was involved in a crash, Mahoney said. Among other limitations, police can’t get EDR information from motorcycles because they don’t have air bags or from tractor-trailers because they use proprietary software.
The technology presents benefits that are immediately clear, but privacy advocates worry about possible misuse down the line. Vehicle owners need to own the data, especially if federal authorities plan to mandate EDRs, said Khaliah Barnes, administrative law counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, based in Washington, D.C. Otherwise, she said, the data can be accessed by police, insurance companies and private citizens without permission or meaningful oversight. In a worst-case scenario, she said, data could be tampered with and used against a driver to deny an insurance claim. Fourteen states have enacted laws to protect the use of EDR data by third parties except in narrow circumstances, which include police officers who get owner consent or a search warrant. Some states expressly forbid insurance companies from requiring access to the data as a condition of coverage. Missouri and Kansas lack laws specifically addressing EDRs, although Kansans could be protected under language in a law about computer crimes. Legislation to clarify that vehicle owners own EDR data is making its way through Congress. Senators from North Dakota and Minnesota introduced the Driver Privacy Act in January, with Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri as a co-sponsor. Information from black boxes has been deemed reliable and admissible by courts. Prosecutors believe the information has helped force plea deals in criminal cases resulting from traffic wrecks. “I don’t think I’ve had a case when I’ve had EDR data that didn’t end in a plea,” said Jackson County assistant prosecutor Traci Stansell. “It’s not a witness who can be contradicted. It’s right there in black and white.” The defendant in the Morris wreck, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter after the high-speed crash, pleaded guilty and was sentenced within one year of the wreck, saving Kelsey’s family from court proceedings that could have dragged on for years. “I imagine the black box played into that,” Kim Morris said. “I couldn’t fathom going through this for two or three years, so I was glad it was over.”
Event data recorders
For a list of vehicles with EDRs, sorted by year, make and model, go to www.harristechnical.com/downloads/EDR%20List.pdf.
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