Monday, July 2, 2012

Black-Box Recorders in Automobiles

Most drivers are unaware that their vehicle is equipped with a “black box” gathering information regarding the events immediately before and during a motor vehicle accident.
Eighty five percent (85%) of current automobiles have event data recorders (EDR), more commonly known as black boxes, installed in them.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) defines an EDR as a device recording a “vehicle's dynamic, time-series data during the time period just prior to a crash event or during a crash event, intended for retrieval after the crash event."

On March 14, 2012, the U.S. Senate passed “Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act” (“MAP-21”), a transportation bill making event data recorders mandatory in all new cars and there is pending Pennsylvania EDR legislation - - the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Event Data Recorder Act - - currently under review by the Committee on Transportation.

While those protective of privacy may not support a law making black boxes mandatory, in all vehicles, data obtained from an EDR can help establish liability and deconstruct a motor vehicle accident streamlining accident claims and litigation processes, facilitating prosecution of drivers disobeying traffic laws and resulting in improved vehicle and roadway design.

Background on Black Boxes in Cars

Although historically identified with airplane crashes in which downloaded data was used by aircraft accident investigative engineers, the use of black boxes in automobiles dates to the early 1970s, when the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) recommended that automobile manufacturers and the NHTSA use onboard sensors and recorders to gather crash data.

Within a few years, General Motors began installing early versions of EDRs in its vehicles mainly used to control airbag deployment and document crash severity data.

Black boxes became more sophisticated recording data from minor accidents during which airbags did not deploy and by 2005, General Motors, Ford, Isuzu, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Subaru and Suzuki were voluntarily equipping their vehicles with EDRs.

Recent Vehicular Black Box Legislation

Beyond making EDRs mandatory in all vehicles, starting in 2015, MAP-21 requires manufacturers to make EDR data accessible with commercially available equipment.

Starting with 2013 models, EDRs must keep a record of 15 discrete variables in the seconds before a crash including the car's speed, how far the accelerator was pressed, the engine revolutions per minute, whether the driver hit the brakes, whether the driver was wearing a safety belt, and how long it took for the airbags to deploy.

On March 10, 2012, the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Event Data Recorder Act was filed and transferred to the Committee on Transportation and requires that a manufacturer of a new motor vehicle sold or leased in Pennsylvania disclose both whether the car is equipped with ,and what type of data can be recorded by, an EDR.

The pending act also provides an outline for information retrieval, requiring consent from the motor vehicle owner to download data and provides that illegally downloaded information is inadmissible as evidence in any civil, criminal or administrative action and is insufficient to support an adjudication of the motor vehicle accident’s cause unless corroborated by other evidence.

Vehicular Black Box Data’s Impact and Privacy Protections

If made readily available, this information gathered by EDR’s will greatly affect criminal and civil cases involving motor vehicle accidents.

Specifically, accident claims and litigation processes should be streamlined for insurance companies leading to settlement and saving insurers millions of dollars in litigation fees.

Additionally, retrieved data can establish the speed of vehicles and lead to the prosecution of drivers disobeying traffic laws.

Further, increased awareness of, and accessibility to, black-box data will result in improved vehicle and roadway design and lead to safer driving.

Although previously unclear if black-box data to belonged to the car owner or to the manufacturer, MAP-21 establishes that EDR compiled data from belongs to the car owner.

Therefore, outside of a court order granting law enforcement access, where an emergency medical team needs the data, or in the event of an NTSB investigation, insurance companies would be unable to collect EDR data without owner consent.