Data Recorders in Cars Might Open Pandora's Black Box
Tuesday, July 27, 2004; Page E01
Planes have them. Trains have them. Some trucks do, too. And you may be driving around with one somewhere in your car and not know it.
A rule the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed last month would blow the cover on "black boxes" in cars, standardizing by 2008 the kinds of information they collect and requiring the data be disclosed to those who own or lease the vehicles.
Also known by the auto industry and regulators as "event data recorders," or EDRs, these devices are connected to a vehicle's air-bag system and are capable of detecting many things, including the speed of the vehicle, whether the driver was wearing a seat belt at the time of a crash and how the brakes were applied.
Though some insurers, consumer groups, medical professionals and the National Transportation Safety Board have been pushing to make the boxes mandatory, the NHTSA proposal is limited to requiring automakers who install the devices to collect the same data in the same format -- 18 pieces of information in all.
The NHTSA says there are 30 million of the devices on the road and that up to 90 percent of new models will have the recorders. Under the proposal, carmakers would have to disclose in owners' manuals that the recorders have been installed and that they will record what happens in the seconds before and during a crash. They also would have to make it easier for researchers and crash investigators to access the recorded data, which can be difficult to mine.
John Hinch, a NHTSA safety engineer, said the agency is not interested in the information to determine who might be at fault in a crash -- as insurers or family lawyers might be -- but in the vehicle's speed and what happened in the split seconds before the crash. "We will have a better understanding of cause and effect and better rules in the future. EDR will allow us to build safer cars," Hinch said.
The leader in EDR technology is General Motors Corp. The car company, which has used the technology in a limited way since the 1970s, now equips all its models with the feature. Ford Motor Co. and Toyota have some of the capability. Chrysler has downplayed the recorders and said only a few of its models are collecting crash data.
Insurers, consumer groups and manufacturers have a variety of opinions about the usefulness of the data and how it should be used. Supporters of collecting the data think that safety research, car design and accident investigations would be enhanced by standardized information that one day could be centrally collected and analyzed.
Law enforcement officials regard it like DNA or a video camera in a bank -- it becomes a piece of valuable evidence. For example, an information dump from an event data recorder won a case for a prosecutor in Florida in 2003. It would have been hard to prove that the Pontiac Firebird was going 114 miles per hour without it.
"They are increasingly being used in litigation. It can be a key piece of evidence. This would revolutionize third-party claim settlements," said David Snyder, vice president of the American Insurance Association, which represents 400 auto insurance companies. "But their greatest value is in safety research."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company