Transcript: Thursday, February 23, 2006, 11 a.m. ET

Car Safety Research

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John Hinch
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
Thursday, February 23, 2006; 11:00 AM

John Hinch is an expert on event data recorders (EDR) and is also the director of human-vehicle performance research for the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA). Since 1998, he's studied and conducted analyses of EDR devices that are used to collect collision-avoidance and crash data in motor vehicles. He is a graduate of the University of Michigan and served in the U.S. Marine Corps.

More than 75 percent of all new passenger vehicles are equipped with event data recorders (EDRs) -- devices that can capture vital safety information during a crash. While many people do not realize their vehicles are equipped, others misunderstand exactly what EDRs can and cannot do.

John was online to answer questions about EDRs and explain how they are vital to the safety research conducted by the agency.

The transcript follows.

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John Hinch: Hi. This is John. I look forward to answering your questions.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: I have an OBDII scan tool (connects to my laptop computer) to perform diagnostic procedures on both of my cars -- a 1998 Ford Contour and a 2001 Toyota Camry. Can I use this or a different scan tool to read the "black box" in my cars? And is there a list that tells you what vehicles record what kind of data and how to access it?

John Hinch: No, your scan tool cannot be used to download the EDR. A specific tool manufactured by Vetronix Corporation is needed to download the event data recorder. Vetronix has a list of vehicles and retrievable data on its Web site: www.vetronix.com.

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Rockville, Md.: I have been keeping up on devices that measure tire pressure and have learned that another device to keep the tires properly inflated automatically would only be a few dollars. But I do know that car makers will cut corners to save five cents a car. What are the chances of a device to keep tires inflated properly? Would legislation help? What would the benefits be?

John Hinch: What you are referring to is a device called a tire pressure monitoring system. It detects an under inflated tire and flashes a warning on your dashboard. Soon, all new vehicles will be equipped with these systems. But they have nothing at all to do with the event data recorder, which only captures a limited amount of data around the time of a crash.

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Silver Spring, Md.: The idea of big brother keeping tabs on my car is a little unsettling. What kind of information are they collecting? Would I atleast own the rights to the information collected in the black box?

John Hinch: I agree with you. Data collection can be unnerving, especially if it is done without your permission. With event data recorders (EDRs), data is only collected if a crash occurs. The EDR only collects technical data -- no audio or photos. The data variables collected vary considerably by car company. For example, many GM cars may collect the following information:

- Vehicle speed for the 5 seconds prior to the collision.

- Engine RPM for the 5 seconds prior to the collision

- Throttle position for the 5 seconds prior to the collision

- Service brake (on/off) for the 5 seconds prior to the collision

- Crash severity data

- Seat belt status

- Other restraint information such as air bag deployment.

Regarding you concern on privacy and ownership, NHTSA's position is the owner of the vehicle is the owner of the data. However, the data ownership question is far from being resolved. Some states have passed laws regarding ownership while others have not. Ultimately, it is a question that may be answered by the courts or Congress or both.

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Washington, D.C.: I read a story not too far back about a man in Montreal who was convicted for killing someone in a car accident. It was discovered that the man was driving faster than the speed limit and didn't brake because his Pontiac Sunfire had a black box in it. The driver didn't even know his car had one. It seems like EDR technology is not being used to improve safety, but to put traffic violators behind bars. How common is it for cars to have these devices? Who has the authority to access the collected information?

John Hinch: You are correct. Many courts have used EDR data as evidence in their trials. Police collect EDR data as part of the case investigation, just as they might measure skid marks or tire tread depth. However, as I have pointed out in my other responses, the question of EDR data ownership is far from resolved. Ultimately, it will be decided by the courts, States, or Congress.

While trial evidence is one use of these data, there are others. NHTSA uses the data solely to improve motor vehicle safety. It provides us with a much more accurate snapshot of those brief seconds before and during a crash. Often, eyewitness accounts are unreliable or not available. The EDR can fill that void.

Auto companies have indicated that over 50% of all new cars and light trucks have some type of EDR. Of these a smaller subset can be downloaded using publicly available tools.

You have the authority to release your EDR data. Police can subpoena to obtain your data, but a judge is involved in making the final decision.

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Washington, D.C.: How does NHTSA obtain the data from EDRs? What if the car owner doesn't want to release that data to NHTSA? Can he or she prevent disclosure? If so, how?

John Hinch: NHTSA crash researchers will ask the owner's permission prior to downloading any EDR data. If the owner refuses, the researcher will complete the remainder of the vehicle inspection and collect other relevant information, including restraint system performance (safety belts, airbags, etc). Having the EDR data helps complete the restraint system performance puzzle. While having the information that the air bag deployed is useful, it is more important that we know exactly when in the crash sequence the air bag deployed. The research we've done with EDRs has, for example, helped lead to the development of advanced air bag systems that are installed in most 2006 vehicles.

By law, there is no personal identifying information published in our case files. Vehicle Identification Numbers (VIN, license plates, etc) are all removed from any case information before it is made public.

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Washington, D.C.: I have found information on how to remove an EDR from my vehicle. I don't want my vehicle spying on me. Convince me that it's a good idea to keep it installed.

John Hinch: While someone may be advertising that they have a method to do such, I would have little faith that removing the EDR would not harm other critical safety functions.

New car/truck companies integrate the EDR function into the air bag control system. These functions use the same computer and other related devices. In order to remove the EDR function, the computer's software would have to be altered. This is the same software that is operating your vehicle's safety systems, including air bags and seat belt pretensioners.

Aside from the risk of affecting vital safety systems, you should realize what EDRs can and cannot do. Essentially, EDRs only capture data when a significant crash occurs.

We'd be interested in the source of information on disabling the EDR. Can you submit a new question with the information?

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Rockville, Md.: What if one were to tie a GPS with a database of speed limits and stop signs and other devices then record a person's driving procedures. Perhaps transponders would send red light data to the car to see if it just ran a light or not. Would it be possible to record violations of the traffic laws? If so, would we ever want to measure these violations?

John Hinch: EDR devices are not designed to capture these types of data. The EDR data is limited to crashes.

Other recorders, such as those used on airplanes, do continuously record data.

Your concept of digital maps and GPS for highway traffic management is being researched. These systems could help manage traffic and congestion, but researchers are not planning on recording traffic violations.

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Baltimore, Md.: Hi, John.

This is not a question directly related to EDR, but more of a general question. I think the NHSTA has done a commendable job to test and improve the standards for vehicle crashes. However, I feel that the majority of accidents are caused by careless, distracted, and inexperienced drivers. What does the NHSTA do to improve and encourage better driving skills?

John Hinch: You are correct that over 90 percent of all crashes are the result of human error. Driver training and experience can help reduce the odds of being in a crash. Driver training and licensing is the responsibility of parents and state governments. We do provide information on the effectiveness of various training and licensing programs but the ultimate responsibility lies with the state.

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Vienna, Va.: How would I know if I have an EDR in my car? Are car manufacturers obligated to tell their customers if there is one in there?

John Hinch: You don't. But several states have enacted laws that require car companies to indicate the presence of an EDR in their owner's manual. To date the following states have enacted such laws:

Arkansas; enacted on Sep. 1, 2005.

California; enacted in 2004.

New York; enacted on Sep. 16, 2005.

Nevada; enacted on Jan. 1, 2006.

North Dakota; enacted on Aug. 1, 2005.

Texas; enacted on Sep. 1, 2006.

Other states are considering similar actions.

On the other hand, most new cars have an EDR integrated into the advanced airbag system. As earlier noted, you can get a list of vehicles with EDRs from the Visteonics Web site.

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Greensboro, N.C.: What books or Web sites are devoted to the topic of EDRs?

John Hinch: Here is a list of several books.

Fatal Exit: The Automotive Black Box Debate

Thomas M. Kowalick

ISBN: 0-471-69807-5

October 2004, Wiley-IEEE Press 479 pages

Black Box: What's under Your Hood?

Thomas M. Kowalick

MICAH, April 2005

508 6 X 9 pages

Black Boxes: Event Data Recorders

Thomas M. Kowalick

MICAH, Summer 2005

394 6 X 9 pages

NHTSA has a Web site for EDRs

http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/edr-site/index.html

SAE and IEEE also have published some documents in this area. You can find them at sae.org and ieee.org

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John Hinch: Looks like we've run out of time. I had a great time chatting with you all. Thanks for sending all of your great questions. Take care!

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