Car Black Box Recorders Capture Crash Data

Event Data Recorders May Soon Be Mandatory

  • Recording Crash Data

    Recording Crash Data

    An event data recorder (EDR) captures information about a car crash when an airbag deploys. | December 17, 2012

4 Photos

Mention the term "black boxes" and most people think of airplanes — and, unfortunately, airplane crashes. In the wake of a crash, the event data recorder (EDR), which is the technical term for a black box, gives aviation authorities clues on what went wrong. What many people may not realize is that an EDR is also present in most modern vehicles, where it also records crash data that's used in various ways.

Car black boxes are in the news because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is proposing that all automakers equip new consumer vehicles with the devices beginning in September 2014. It estimates the per-vehicle cost of an EDR at $20, but the total costs to the industry would be $26.4 million, taking into account technology improvements, assembly costs, compliance and paperwork-maintenance costs, according to NHTSA.

"This rulemaking to mandate EDRs across the entire light vehicle fleet could contribute to advancements in vehicle designs, and advanced restraint and other safety countermeasures," the White House Office of Management and Budget said in its review of the EDR proposal.

NHTSA said in its announcement that "in keeping with NHTSA's current policies on EDR data, the EDR data would be treated by NHTSA as the property of the vehicle owner and would not be used or accessed by the agency without owner consent." But that statement might not be enough to allay fears about car owner privacy.

Personal data that's specifically tracked by an automotive device became an issue in recent years when telematics service provider OnStar said that it would continue to monitor the vehicles of owners who no longer subscribe to the service and was contemplating selling customer data to third parties. After media reports on the subject and a possible government investigation, OnStar changed course. Auto insurers are offering onboard devices that track mileage and other driver behavior, with lower insurance rates as the incentive for their use.

Against that backdrop, here's what car owners need to know about car black box recorders, what they collect, who owns the data and how it can be used.

Car Black Boxes Not Required — Yet
Currently, the federal government doesn't require automakers to install EDRs in vehicles. It's up to automakers to decide if they want to include them — and many do. According to NHTSA, 96 percent of all 2013 vehicles have the devices. But not all automakers that install black boxes reveal their existence and location — although they have to do so starting with 2013 model-year vehicles, thanks to a rule NHTSA adopted in 2006. And not all automakers permit the use of third-party software that would allow a private party (such as a testing company working on behalf of an owner) to analyze the data the devices gather.

"There are cars that we know have EDRs and we can't download the information because we don't have the software," says Jim Harris, owner of Harris Technical Services, a Florida-based company that does traffic accident reconstruction and specializes in EDR data retrieval and analysis. "And there are those that have them, but we don't know for certain whether they do because the automaker doesn't reveal the location or make the software available."

More recently, the agency mandated that all vehicles manufactured after September 1, 2011 that include EDRs record a minimum of 13 data points in a standardized format.

Where They Are and What They Do
Despite being called a "black box," an EDR is usually small and silver. It records data from a variety of sensors in a vehicle and is typically attached to the vehicle's floor. But EDRs can also be mounted to a car's steering column, firewall or other out-of-the-way location. When a crash occurs, an EDR captures and stores information about the incident. In addition to the date and time of the crash, modern EDRs record:

  • Vehicle speed
  • Engine speed
  • Steering angle
  • Throttle position
  • Braking status
  • Force of impact
  • Seatbelt status
  • Airbag deployment

The EDR doesn't have any information about who was driving or where an incident took place. Nor can it reveal any personal driver information. An EDR also can't tell whether the driver was intoxicated or using a cell phone during an incident.

Some EDRs can temporarily capture some information. Say a driver hits a speed bump while traveling too fast, Harris says. The EDR will record that incident, but in the event of a crash and the deployment of an airbag, it would overwrite the older data and "lock down."

"Our systems are designed to record a short time before and after an airbag deploys," said Wes Sherwood, a Ford spokesman.

Extracting data from an EDR requires training and the proper diagnostic tools. Analyzing the data is also a specialized skill. Typically, automotive service technicians can't access data from an EDR through a car's onboard diagnostics (OBD) port. An exception is Nissan vehicles, in which EDRs are accessible via the OBD.

Why We Have Them
Car black boxes started out as a way for automakers to measure and refine safety equipment. GM was a pioneer in their use and began including them in nearly all its vehicles by the early 1990s. The initial incentive to include the EDR in cars was that it allowed automakers to get a better idea of how airbags responded in a crash. In fact, advances such as "dual-stage" airbags, which deploy depending on speed, are a direct result of data gleaned from EDRs.

The better data that carmakers have about crashes and near crashes, "the more we know about the risks drivers face on the road and how to improve safety," Ford spokesman Sherwood says. Automakers can also use EDR data to track manufacturing defects so they can issue recalls. EDR data was crucial, for example, in analyzing the unintended acceleration issues that affected some Toyota vehicles.

While EDR information is useful to automakers and NHTSA, it's also very valuable to law enforcement and attorneys. Data from EDRs is often used as evidence in court cases and to settle legal claims. There are no federal laws governing who owns and has access to the data on a vehicle EDR, although 13 states have legislation related to the devices. These statutes range from fairly strict limits on how EDR data can be used, as in Arkansas, and broader limits in California. Since 2006, more than a dozen other states have considered enacting similar laws, according to NHTSA.

Knowing Your Rights
EDR expert Harris notes that the data on a recorder is generally considered to be the car owner's personal property. Just as law enforcement can't access data on your computer without a search warrant, it can't access your car's EDR without one either. Attorneys and insurance companies can't typically access or use the data in a court case without the car owner's consent.

"In most states, the current vehicle owner, or their legal representative, can give or withhold permission to download EDR data," according to an FAQ on the Harris Web site. "Courts can subpoena EDR data through court orders and some states collect data under their existing laws governing crash investigations."

It's in those instances that data ownership gets complicated, says Paul Stephens, director for policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearing House.

"It's an extremely complex area," he says, in which everything is subject to judicial procedure and "it's always possible to get a subpoena to get that information."

Harris points out that auto insurance policies can contain an "Agreement to Cooperate" clause. Such language allows an insurer access to EDR data if it wants it. However, some states have statutes that override these provisions, he says. When a vehicle is sold, the EDR data becomes the property of the new owner, he says.

That means that if a car is in a crash and is deemed a total loss by an insurance company, the insurer now owns the vehicle. The insurance company can then access the data on the EDR and could possibly use it in legal proceedings against the former owner, he says.

Finally, Harris points out that the data from a car's EDR is only one part of the puzzle in reconstructing what happened in a crash.

"EDR data doesn't stand alone," he says. "We've found data records that did not match the physical evidence in a crash — not even close." Other mitigating factors have to be taken into account along with EDR data, he says.

In its proposal, NHTSA acknowledges the public's privacy concerns about event data recorders. It notes that EDRs in cars are not like black boxes in airliners or other modes of transport. They don't record for minutes at a time and don't contain audio or visual recordings. NTHSA says that while its own policy is to treat EDR information as the property of the vehicle owners, it does not have the authority to establish legally binding rules on the ownership or use of car black box data. And it says that "complications may arise" when the ownership of the vehicle or the EDR is transferred after a crash.

NHTSA invited the public to comment on the proposed rule and they will have 60 days to do so once the proposal is published in the Federal Register. Publication was expected to take place the week of December 10, 2012.

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