Federal government wants to require ‘black boxes’ for cars

John Egan

You’ve likely heard of “black boxes” on airplanes, which record data that officials use to investigate crashes. But did you know that the car or truck you’re driving also may have a black box?

Vehicle black boxes, known as event data recorders (EDRs), keep track of such information as how fast a car was traveling before and during a wreck, whether the driver hit the brakes, whether the air bags deployed and whether an occupant’s seat belt was buckled.

As it stands now, an estimated 96 percent of 2013 passenger vehicles weighing less than 8,500 pounds each are equipped with black boxes, including those made by Ford, General Motors and Toyota. On Friday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) proposed that automakers install black boxes in all “light” passenger vehicles by September 2014. The proposal has raised concerns about privacy rights and about auto insurance companies using the crash data.

Will black boxes improve road safety?

“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.”

According to the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, data stored by these black boxes belongs to vehicle owners. Police officers, insurers, researchers, automakers and others may gain access to the data with an owner’s consent. Without consent, access can be obtained through a court order.

“For crashes that don’t involve litigation, especially when police or insurers are interested in assessing fault, insurers may be able to access the EDRs in their policyholders’ vehicles based on provisions in the insurance contract requiring policyholders to cooperate with the insurer,” the safety institute says. “However, some states prohibit insurance contracts from requiring policyholders to consent to access.”

Tully Lehman, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Network of California, says auto insurers don’t use this data to set rates and “very rarely” use it to investigate claims.

Protecting your privacy

AAA, an organization for motorists, joined NHTSA in backing the black box proposal, as long as a car owner has access to the data and the owner’s privacy is protected.

“The owner’s permission or a court order should be required for others to access EDR data unless it is used for research purposes where the information cannot be traced to a specific vehicle,” AAA says in a statement. “All vehicle manufacturers should be required to disclose the existence of EDR devices on new vehicle window stickers.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry group made up of 12 automakers, urges the federal government to weigh drivers’ privacy.

“Event data recorders help our engineers understand how cars perform in the real world, but looking forward, we need to make sure we preserve privacy,” alliance spokeswoman Gloria Bergquist says in a statement reported by USA Today. “Automakers do not access EDR data without consumer permission, and any government requirements to install EDRs on all vehicles must include steps to protect consumer privacy.”

The Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy advocacy group, shares the alliance’s privacy concerns about the black boxes.

“Right now, we’re in an environment where there are no rules, there are no limits, there are no consequences and there is no transparency,” Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, tells FoxNews.com. “Most people who are operating a motor vehicle have no idea this technology is integrated into their vehicle.”

Writing for The Christian Science Monitor, auto blogger Kurt Ernst worries about what auto insurance companies can and will do with data from vehicles’ black boxes.

“While we may be safe from law enforcement wirelessly accessing data from black boxes (for the near future, anyway),” Ernst writes, “we know one thing for certain: insurance companies aren’t in the business of losing money, and if such data can be used to pad profits, chances are good insurers will find a way to do so.”

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