Event data recorders: Is your car spying on you?

Chris Kissell

Today’s cars are bursting with technological bells and whistles designed to improve your driving experience. But one high-tech feature has caused some controversy.

Event data recorders (EDRs) are devices that capture accident information such as how fast a vehicle was traveling before a crash, whether the brakes were applied right before the crash and other details.

Recently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed a new rule that would require manufacturers to install event data recorders in all light passenger vehicles (those weighing less than 8,500 pounds) starting in 2014.

The goal is to gather information that can lead to fewer traffic accidents and traffic deaths, according to NHTSA.

“By understanding how drivers respond in a crash and whether key safety systems operate properly, NHTSA and automakers can make our vehicles and our roadways even safer,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says in a statement. “This proposal will give us the critical insight and information we need to save more lives.”

However, consumer advocates worry that such data could be used in ways that are detrimental to consumers – including the possibility that insurers would use the data to raise a driver’s car insurance premiums.

“EDR data raises important privacy questions,” says Khaliah Barnes, administrative law counsel for the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center.

What do EDRs monitor?

Ninety-six percent of model-year 2013 passenger cars and light-duty vehicles are equipped with EDR, according to NHTSA.

Like “black boxes” in airplanes, EDRs collect a wealth of crash-related information, including:

• Vehicle speed during a crash.
• Braking activity before a crash.
• Impact force of a crash.
• How far down the accelerator pedal is pushed during a crash.
• Time it takes air bags to deploy.
• Whether seat belts were in use before a crash.

Some EDRs record data continuously, but regularly and automatically overwrite the data until a crash occurs. Other EDRs do not record until something triggers them, such as a sudden decrease in a car's speed.

Consumer advocates and other groups have sounded alarms about the information that EDRs capture and how that information is used.

Recently, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and 20 other organizations – including the American Civil Liberties Union, Consumer Action, Consumer Watchdog and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse – issued a joint statement requesting that NHTSA create rules that better protect consumers and their EDR data.

In the statement, the groups acknowledge “the value in EDRs for vehicle post-crash assessment and emergency response.”

But Barnes says important questions remain about EDR data. They include:

• Who owns the data?
• Who can access the data?
• Under what circumstances can organizations and people access the data?
• For what purposes can the information be used?

Barnes says law enforcement, insurance companies and drivers involved in lawsuits are more frequently requesting access to EDR data. The Electronic Privacy Information Center’s thinks regulations should be developed that protect drivers and limit access to this data.

Such rules should limit the amount of data EDRs collect, give vehicle owners and operators control over their data, and protect the privacy rights of vehicle owners and operators, he says.

Thirteen states restrict access to EDR data or how the data can be used: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Texas, Virginia and Washington.

These state laws offer varying levels of protection, Barnes says. For example, Arkansas prohibits insurance companies from requiring EDR data access as a condition for issuing a policy. Meanwhile, Connecticut requires law enforcement agencies to obtain search warrants before accessing EDR data without an owner’s consent.

In Washington, anyone who accesses EDR data without a vehicle owner’s permission is guilty of a misdemeanor unless legal authority was given.

Car insurance and EDR data

Barnes says the Electronic Privacy Information Center thinks some auto insurers access EDR data to calculate premiums for drivers. The center opposes any insurance rule that reduces coverage, increases premiums, applies surcharges or denies discounts solely because a vehicle owner or operator refuses to give an insurance company access to EDR data.

Robert Passmore, senior director of personal lines policy at the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, says the trade group supports the proposal to require installation of EDRs in most vehicles. “We are fine with what NHTSA is doing,” he says.

Insurers generally use EDR data only when accident lawsuits have been filed or extraordinary circumstances come up that make it difficult to settle a claim, Passmore says. “I think it only comes up in the more severe cases,” he says.

Passmore says he’s unaware of any insurance companies punishing drivers for failing to divulge EDR information. State laws generally protect a driver’s EDR information, he says.

“The courts have said consistently that the data belongs to the owner of the vehicle,” Passmore says.

The Property Casualty Insurers Association of America supports rules that allow EDR information to be shared with insurers when the vehicle owner authorizes it, Passmore says, or under court order when an insurer needs the information for a claims investigation.

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