Groups spar over car black boxes as Congress mulls auto safety bill

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 2010

A proposal to equip all new cars with "black boxes" to record crash data has emerged as a key point of dispute between the industry and safety groups as Congress weighs an expansive auto safety bill.

With both sides showing support for making black boxes mandatory, their appearance in all cars in the coming years seems increasingly likely. But automakers and safety advocates disagree over the extent of the data the devices should collect and over the extent they should be able to survive the worst of crashes.

"We believe there is a great value in having these on every car," David Strickland, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, told a Senate committee Wednesday. But he said the agency would have to weigh the cost and benefits before drafting specific requirements for the devices.

One proposal, by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and backed by safety advocates, would require that the devices be strong enough to withstand high-speed rollover crashes, as well as immersion in fire or water. It also calls for the black boxes to collect 60 seconds of data before a crash and 15 seconds after a crash.

"The data collected by the devices are useless if the EDR [event data recorder] doesn't actually survive the crash," Speier said Wednesday.

But auto company representatives say such rules, particularly those that require them to withstand fiery high speed crashes, could be unreasonably expensive. Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Auto Alliance, an industry group, noted that black boxes for airplanes can cost between $5,000 and $25,000.

"This proposal would make the event data recorder crash-proof like a black box typically found in an airplane," Bergquist said.

In response to the massive Toyota recalls earlier this year, Congress is considering a raft of new proposals intended to enhance auto safety. The industry and safety groups are also sparring over proposed requirements in bills by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Cal.) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), that would, among other things, allow judicial review of NHTSA investigation decisions, lift the cap on civil penalties for automakers who violate NHTSA rules and make auto company executives liable for up to $250 million if they file false or misleading reports to the agency.

Thursday, James E. Lentz III, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, is expected to testify that the company and its dealers have tested 2,000 cars involved in unintended acceleration incidents and that in none of the investigations was the vehicle's electronic throttles found to be the cause.

But the black box requirement, which has aroused complaints regarding privacy as well, may be the most controversial of the proposals that would directly affect the design of new cars.

Several automakers already equip their cars with event data recorders, and a NHTSA rule adopted in 2006 lays out standards for the devices if automakers choose to install them.

As prescribed by NHTSA, the devices collect far less information and are not designed to withstand the worst of crashes as they would be under the safety advocates proposal. Though limited, the information in them has been used by automakers, police and insurance companies during accident investigations.

H. Clay Gabler, a professor at Virginia Tech who uses the black box data from cars to conduct crash research, said the devices used now can survive as much as 95 percent of all crashes. Adding to their survivability might be expensive, he said.

But he generally favors expanding the amount of information that is recorded before a crash. He noted that the existing NHTSA standard for black boxes, which record only five seconds of pre-crash data, wouldn't give a full picture of the unintended acceleration incidents that stirred the Toyota recalls. "From a research point of view, the more data the better," he said. "Having 60 seconds of data before a crash would certainly help."

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