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Automobile Black Boxes: Good or Bad for Consumers?

We all know that airplanes have “black boxes” — flight recorders that keep track of the cockpit conversation and aircraft settings for a period of time. If the plane crashes, this information is helpful in determining the cause of the crash.

But did you know your late-model car probably also has a “black box” that records your speed, brake application, seat belt use, and other data points? It doesn’t record your conversations of course.

There is quite a debate about whether these black boxes in cars are a good or bad thing for drivers. They can be helpful in certain situations for determining fault in collisions. But consumers don’t have an option as to whether they want the black box. The device just comes with the car. So, does the potential helpfulness of the information outweigh our right to privacy? That’s the question.

An article from the New York Times News Service details the pros and cons of automobile black boxes. Here are excerpts:

When Timothy Murray crashed his government-issued Ford Crown Victoria in 2011, he was fortunate, as car accidents go. Murray, then the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, was not seriously hurt, and he told the police he was wearing a seat belt and was not speeding.

But a different story soon emerged. Murray was driving more than 100 miles an hour and was not wearing a seat belt, according to the computer in his car that tracks certain actions. He was given a $555 ticket; he later said he had fallen asleep.

The case put Murray at the center of a growing debate over a little-known but increasingly important piece of equipment buried deep in the innards of a car: the event data recorder, more commonly known as the black box.

About 96 percent of all new vehicles sold in the United States have the boxes, and in September 2014, if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has its way, all will have them.

The boxes have long been used by car companies to assess the performance of their vehicles.

But data stored in the devices is increasingly being used to identify safety problems in cars and as evidence in traffic accidents and criminal cases. And the trove of data inside the boxes has raised privacy concerns, including questions about who owns the information, and what it can be used for, even as critics have raised questions about its reliability.

To federal regulators, law enforcement authorities and insurance companies, the data is an indispensable tool to investigate crashes.

The black boxes “provide critical safety information that might not otherwise be available to NHTSA to evaluate what happened during a crash — and what future steps could be taken to save lives and prevent injuries,” David Strickland, the safety agency’s administrator, said in a statement.

But to consumer advocates, the data is only the latest example of governments and companies having too much access to private information. Once gathered, they say, the data can be used against car owners, to find fault in accidents or in criminal investigations.

“These cars are equipped with computers that collect massive amounts of data,” said Khaliah Barnes of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based consumer group. “Without protections, it can lead to all kinds of abuse.”

In Murray’s case, a court order was not required to release the data to investigators. Massachusetts is not among the states to pass a law governing access to the data. Asked about the case, Murray, who did not contest the ticket and who resigned as lieutenant governor in June to become head of the Chamber of Commerce in Worcester, Mass., declined to comment.

Current regulations require that the presence of the black box be disclosed in the owner’s manual. But the vast majority of drivers who do not read the manual thoroughly may not know that their vehicle can capture and record their speed, brake position, seat belt use and other data each time they get behind the wheel.

The origins of black boxes, which are the size of about two decks of cards and are situated under the center console, date to the 1990 model year, when General Motors introduced them to conduct quality studies. Since then, their use and the scope of the data they collect has expanded.

But privacy advocates have expressed concern that the data collected will only grow to include a wider time frame and other elements like GPS and location-based services.

Here is additional information from the American Association for Justice news release:

NBC Nightly News reported that “many drivers don’t know is that in most newer model cars today, a small recorder is keeping track of critical data, just in case of an accident.” NBC notes that the information is useful for police and insurance companies but that “privacy advocates worry about who is allowed access to that readout about what you are doing behind the wheel.” NBC recounts an incident where former New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine was involved in a crash and a black box showed that the version of events he originally gave to the media was incorrect. The NBC News report is also available here.

Bob Kraft

I am a Dallas, Texas lawyer who has had the privilege of helping thousands of clients since 1971 in the areas of Personal Injury law and Social Security Disability.

About This Blog

The title of this blog reflects my attitude toward those government agencies and insurance companies that routinely mistreat injured or disabled people. As a Dallas, Texas lawyer, I've spent more than 45 years trying to help those poor folk, and I have been frustrated daily by the actions of the people on the other side of their claims. (Sorry if I offended you...)

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