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If you own a newer car you need to read this

This article is from the Oregonian Metro/Northwest section from Monday, October 21, 2001
From The Oregonian


When on the road, you're probably not alone



The highway stretches out long before you. The road is dry, the sky is clear. There's not another car between you and the horizon.
Your right foot presses the accelerator a little. Then a little more.

"No one will ever know," you think.

Don't be too sure.

Unknown to most motorists, Big Brother is probably riding along. And he's taking good notes.

Almost all vehicles built today have a "black box" recorder, a similar, simpler version of the flight data recorders found in airplanes. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is considering a proposal to make the boxes, now optional for automakers, mandatory in all vehicles sold in the United States within a few years.

If your vehicle is in an accident, the box could be your best friend or worst enemy, recording the critical seconds before a crash. The data could show if the driver tried to avoid an oncoming car or accelerated through an intersection.

As the technology evolves, law enforcement, insurance companies and privacy experts have opened debate about how the data can be used, who owns the information and who might be at risk of what critics call "Big Brotherism" at its worst.

A black box has become central to the investigation into a June 21 fatal rollover accident that killed five Northwest firefighters on their way to Colorado in a van. A judge has sealed the van to preserve what data, if any, might be in the box.

Beyond the crash information the boxes provide, companies are marketing add-on units for parents to monitor their children's driving habits and devices linked to video cameras.

"In general, it is less a matter of concern than it is a matter of control," said Mihir Kshirsagar, a policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center. "One of the concerns is: Does the person driving the car even know this information is being recorded?" Data help police, safety officials On-board computers in modern cars process data on engine and vehicle speed, braking and airbag readiness to meet environmental and safety regulations. The black box simply records what the computer sees. It works like this:

A trigger senses changes in motion. While the sensor monitors velocity, the data recorder in current General Motors cars -- which have been at the forefront of the technology -- logs speed and braking about 10 times per second, essentially writing over data that is older than five seconds. When the change exceeds a certain threshold, such as at the moment of impact, it tells the black box to freeze everything. Five seconds doesn't sound like much, but it can cover a lot of highway. At 40 mph, that's 293 feet, almost the length of a football field.

That data can be crucial to law enforcement officials who have to reconstruct accident scenes. But even though the technology has been around for a while, police and others are just now beginning to tap into it as a "witness" to back up human conclusions.

"There isn't anything it tells us that we can't learn without it," said Lt. Gary Miller, program manager for the Oregon State Police collision reconstruction team. "What it does do is confirm what we already know."

Miller cites an example involving a big truck and a compact car.

"If the vehicles are near the same size, we can figure out speeds using momentum solutions," he said. "In this case, there was such a difference in the size of the vehicles -- and the accident was a head-on collision -- that those solutions didn't work."

Investigators had determined the truck was speeding but couldn't figure out how much.

The black box data showed that five seconds before the crash, the truck had been doing 80 mph. The investigator's estimate of 73 mph was pretty close.

Miller said Oregon police agencies have about 10 recorders as evidence in pending cases.

Besides law enforcement, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which examines about 4,500 accidents a year, also has begun using black box data, mostly to look at driver restraint systems.

John Hinch, head of research and development for the agency, sees benefits to manufacturers because the data help speed safety decisions, such as five years ago when they determined that one model's air bags deployed too easily.

One difficulty in using crash box data in research is that although almost every car that has an air bag also has a black box, no two systems are alike. The national Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Standards Association has called for common standards that would define what data should be captured, including date, time, location, velocity, heading, number of occupants and seat belt use.

"The more accurate the data we gather on highway crashes, the better chance we have to reduce the devastating effects of crashes," said Jim Hall, co-chairman of the association's working group and former head of the National Transportation Safety Board. Critics cite interpretation, privacy But as the boxes become more standard and more widespread, their very existence concerns civil libertarians and others.

At issue: Who owns the data, and who should get access to the information?

Some in legal circles contend the data belong to the vehicle's owner and can't be retrieved without his or her permission. But what if the car is leased? Or the bank still carries the loan?

And some insurance policies require policyholders provide all information available to determine an accident's cause and liability, which could include data from the boxes.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions. A lot of them haven't been asked yet," said Jim Harris, whose Harris Technical Services of Port St. Lucie, Fla., investigates and reconstructs accidents.

"We are probably years away from the type of decision that will establish ownership and access," said Dennis Donnelly, a New Jersey lawyer who specializes in personal injury cases. "Right now, each case is decided on an individual basis. It is like blood tests and DNA. It is still disputed."

But so far, there has been little resistance to accessing the data, with lawyers on both sides generally agreeing to look in the box, said Joseph Ricchezza, a Marlton, N.J., attorney who has worked on cases involving them.

"It's a crapshoot," he said. "You want to know if the case can be settled or if it should go to trial. When you are trying to analyze the strength of your case, it has value."

But what the data mean is in the eye of the beholder.

"It's pretty cool stuff," said Miller, of the state police, but "one of the problems is that the data can be interpreted in so many ways. The data is always objective . . . the interpretation may not be."

Kshirsagar, of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said he appreciates the benefits of collecting data that could help promote safety. But, he said, "if people don't know it is being collected, it is a deceptive practice. Drivers need to know that the information is being collected and for what purpose.

"Then, maybe there should be a way to turn it off if you object."

That's the position of the national trucking industry, which supports the concept but wants it to be voluntary. Some truckers say the system could open the door to the government using the box to check for things such as how many hours the rig has operated.

Today's recorders don't log that information. But the technology is there to easily do that -- and more.

Consider the OnStar System, which works in concert with the accident data recorder. When an OnStar-equipped vehicle is involved in a crash serious enough to trigger the air bags, the system automatically contacts OnStar headquarters. An operator tries to contact the driver by cell phone. If the driver doesn't respond, or says help is needed, OnStar can find the car using global positioning (GPS) and summon aid.

The next generation is more complex. It will be able to determine how severe the impact of a crash is, how many occupants are in the vehicle, who wore seat belts and which air bag deployed. It will determine whether the crash was frontal, side impact or rollover, and relay that to emergency crews.

Even Miller has reservations with technology that goes that far, though it could be a boon to police searching for stolen or suspect vehicles. "I don't think I'd like to see it expanded to where we can track people with GPS and monitor where they are going or how fast they are driving," he said.

"Right now, what we have protects the innocent party. It gives us solid data to protect victims."

Jerry F. Boone: 503-221-8189;  jfboone@aol.com or  jerryboone@news.oregonian.com.

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just kill it. 26.Oct.2002 19:40


Just pull the fuze that runs it or unplug the hot wire to it and no more problem...

Yeah, right 27.Oct.2002 14:57

The Shnoz

Disconnecting power to the box assumes that you know where it is, how to gain access to it, how to distinguish it from the various other electronic gizmos in the car etc.

After all, you wouldn't want to knock out the computer that controls your fuel system or kill all your dash instruments (in some new cars the entire instrument panel is computer-controlled).

And if the data recorder happens to be integrated into some other essential system you're SOL, period.

Funny how not being able to afford the latest in automotive technology can turn out to be a good thing after all...

Here's a thought, drive like you are supposed to and you don't need to worry! 18.Nov.2005 08:56

Dodged Enough Nuts and Self Centered Gloats

You are forgetting; if you disconnect this box, wouldn't it be ironic you are in an accident and it could have been your only redeeming proof that you were doing the right thing? Brilliant!

Here's a thought, drive like you are supposed to and you don't need to worry! 18.Nov.2005 08:58

Dodged Enough Nuts and Self Centered Gloats

You are forgetting; if you disconnect this box, wouldn't it be ironic you are in an accident and it could have been your only redeeming proof that you were doing the right thing? Brilliant!