‘Black boxes’ in vehicles show the truth in wrecks

04/05/2014 6:30 PM

04/05/2014 11:52 PM

Kim Morris didn’t want to know all the painful details about the wreck that killed her 16-year-old daughter in 2009. But she wanted Kansas City police to figure them out — for justice’s sake. Police did, with the help of an event data recorder that had been factory installed in the car that collided with one carrying her daughter, Kelsey. The EDR, sometimes called a “black box,” showed that the other driver had stopped at a stop sign before the crash, just as the driver had said. He told police he thought he had time to pull out onto Northwest 68th Street. He didn’t recognize that the vehicle driven by Kelsey’s church youth leader was barreling toward him at 86 mph in a 40 mph zone. “If the black box can tell the facts that means a lot,” Kim Morris said. “Then you don’t have to revert to thoughts of who’s telling the truth or who’s at fault.” The “black boxes,” which often are actually gray or silver, began appearing in the mid-1990s and now exist in more than 96 percent of vehicles sold in the United States. Federal authorities have announced plans to require standardized versions in all vehicles by September. Still, most motorists remain unaware of the devices, which can record such things as speed, throttle position, velocity change and the use of brakes, cruise control and seat belts for five seconds before and after a crash. Some models record more data and for more seconds. Kansas City police have had the ability to extract and examine data from EDRs since 2001, when police first bought the necessary software, hardware and cables. Back then, though, many vehicles did not have EDRs. Now local authorities see EDRs in more wrecks than not. The data retrieval kits, meanwhile, have become more expensive, $10,000 to $15,000 each, pricing them out of reach for some smaller law enforcement agencies. Kansas City police only pull EDR data after serious or fatal wrecks, which usually account for less than 200 of the city’s 30,000 or so crashes each year. In the majority of cases, they ask for a driver’s consent or get a search warrant first. Most of the time, the data simply back what investigators learn from drivers, witnesses and physical evidence at the scene. But when independent witnesses and evidence are lacking, the EDRs can provide vital information, police say. The data help prove drivers right as much as they prove them wrong, said Sgt. Bill Mahoney, who supervises one of Kansas City’s accident investigation squads. In wrecks involving pedestrians, witnesses often think drivers were speeding. Yet in most cases, witnesses only start paying attention after an accident, Mahoney said, even though they think they were watching beforehand. “They had no reason to watch the vehicle before the wreck happens,” Mahoney said. “But their mind fills in what they think they saw.” A data download “isn’t skewed,” Mahoney said. “It gives us the absolute facts.” Police study angles, damage analysis and roadway evidence to determine speed. But depending on the amount of evidence, police may only determine a minimum speed, or speed lost. “That’s the beauty of (an EDR),” Mahoney said. “It gives us exact information.” The driver of a car that crashed into two trees two years ago, killing a high school student at 87th Street and Hillcrest Drive, clearly had been speeding. The impact ripped the car in two. But police didn’t know just how fast until they pulled the black box data. It showed the driver was using 100 percent throttle and going 104 mph five seconds before impact. In another crash, Mahoney investigated to see if a driver had fallen unconscious from a medical problem. But the data showed the driver went from 65 percent throttle to 70 percent throttle in the seconds before the crash, indicating “he was doing something,” Mahoney said. Black box data often can answer important questions for grieving relatives too, Mahoney said. In one case, the circumstances of a wreck pointed to possible suicide. Investigators combed through data showing steering and throttle position and braking and determined the driver most likely had been distracted. “It looked more like he was reading something,” Mahoney said. “If you’re going to kill yourself, you’re going to steer toward an object and there wouldn’t be braking.” In another fatal wreck, data showed a teenage driver who lost control on a slick highway did not steer, brake or change the throttle after hitting median cables before crashing into a tractor-trailer. It appeared she was unconscious before slamming into the truck, which assuaged relatives who worried her last moments were filled with terror.
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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