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Not Just for Planes: Automobile ‘Black Boxes’ will be Standard by 2015

August 22, 2012

In April 2012, the Senate passed a bill that would require auto manufacturers to install event data recorders (EDRs), also known as “black boxes,” in all cars. They have been around for more than a few years in automobiles: Sarah Jacobsson Purewal of PCWorld reports that at least 64 percent of cars had EDRs as of 2005. The editorial board of Utah’s Standard-Examiner estimates that 90 percent of cars currently on the road have EDRs onboard. These units have long been standard fixtures in airplanes, and they are often essential in establishing events leading up to a crash or some other kind of accident.

This has raised concerns over what data will be collected and more importantly, who will have access to it. EDRs currently on the market detect and record vehicle speed, braking, seatbelt use and specifics about airbag deployment. They are most useful when trying to reconstruct automobile accidents. According to the bill, the EDR and the data recorded on it will be the property of the owner or lessee of the vehicle in which it is installed. But this is only true up to a point. In the event of a medical emergency or (much more flexibly) a court authorization, this data can be retrieved by individuals or companies other than the owner. This is highly controversial, especially in the legal arena.

California personal injury attorney R. Rex Parris is a supporter of these instruments being used in vehicles. He states, “It gives us a lot of information that would shorten trials, and–in many, many cases–removes the necessity of a trial…It has the effect of keeping people honest…You’re not going to lie about what happened, because there’s [recorded] evidence saying what happened.” KTVU-TV in California reports, “Parris alleges that, since most rear-end collisions are the fault of the driver who ran into the car in front, insurers don’t want that information to get into the hands of the injured person’s attorney.”

Parris adds, “Quite frankly, [insurance companies] save a lot of money by not knowing what the true facts are. That data…is going to be beneficial to the person hurt and is going to be detrimental to the insurance company. And so, what they do is obstruct justice by allowing it to be erased.”

It is important to emphasize that Parris provided no hard evidence for this claim in the article and spokespersons for various insurance companies refute this claim. A representative from State Farm, however, agrees that they rarely use the data from EDRs, saying that information from them comes up in about one percent of car accident claims.

The House has not yet passed the bill. Andrew Couts sums up the issue neatly: “While it is completely understandable–even wise–to be skeptical of government-mandated use of technology, especially technology that records the things we do in our homes or cars, EDRs are not quite as nefarious as skeptics might want you to believe. In fact, a wealth of studies show that they really can help make hurtling yourself and your family down the road in a two-ton contraption at 65 MPH safer than it currently is. That said, there’s no telling exactly how this type of technology could be used in the future, especially if EDRs become a required component in our vehicles.”


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