Black boxes in cars

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

The government wants all new cars to have black boxes to record driving data by next September. Today’s columns look at the privacy concerns dogging that requirement; what the current rules address and omit; the potential negatives of sharing information; and some of the obvious benefits. We hear from two lawyers versed in the pros and cons of Event Data Recorders and an elected official who owns car dealerships.

Please note: There are three columns today. Commenting is open.

Black boxes require more transparency

By Nate Cardozo

If your car was manufactured within the last few years, you might be surprised to learn that it likely contains a device that records your driving behavior and your car’s performance. That device is the so-called “black box” or Event Data Recorder (EDR).

What does your EDR record say about you and your driving habits? How long does it store that data? The manufacturer is not required to tell you. Who has access to your data and what are they doing with it? It’s impossible to find out.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) wants to make black boxes mandatory in all new cars and light trucks by September 1, 2014. The NHTSA believes that your privacy is not its responsibility and has proposed rules for black boxes without any privacy protections. The way the rules are worded now, there is no way to know if your employer, your insurance company, your spouse, your mechanic, or even the police are keeping tabs on where, when, and how you drive. You deserve better.

There is no doubt that black boxes serve a valuable forensic function. They collect a variety of technical data while you’re driving, including engine RPM, accelerator pedal position, brake use, safety belt status, air bag deployment and vehicle speed. If a crash is detected, at least five seconds of data will be recorded and “locked.” Investigators then can use that data to find out flaws in vehicle design, or to reconstruct the crash.

Unlike the more familiar black boxes found in airplanes, automotive EDRs are not required to record audio, video, or location information. However, nothing in the rules prohibits any of those from being recorded either. NHTSA claims that such data isn’t collected by the current generation of EDRs, but that could change at any time.

Worse still, other than a boilerplate statement in the back of the owner’s manual that the black box exists, car manufacturers are not required to tell you what data your car actually records beyond the minimum requirement, or for how long it’s kept. If your car is recording your voice, your picture, or your location, you deserve to know. And because the rules don’t specify a maximum recording length, there is nothing to prevent the black box from storing five minutes, or even five months, of data. There needs to be a ceiling to the black box collection requirements, not just a floor. The rules need to state that the vehicle owner also owns all data recorded by the black box, and that the owner may expect that black box data remain private until he or she consents to its disclosure.

The proposed rules don’t address driver privacy in any way. NHTSA only states that it is non-binding agency policy “to treat EDR data as the property of the vehicle owner.” In light of the number of people affected, and the volume of personal data at stake, that’s not enough. The government is currently considering whether to revise those proposed rules before they go into effect. Those revisions must take place to ensure that you know what your car’s black box knows about you, and to ensure that you control that data.

Nate Cardozo is a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

This technology not a big privacy concern

By David Krugler

Our client was driving her 2007 Mercury on I-75 when she plowed into the back of a broken-down truck, shattering her leg and sustaining other injuries.

The trucking company’s insurance company denied any responsibility, claiming our client was probably speeding and wasn’t paying attention. But we had an impartial, impeachable, independent witness to the accident — a black box in our client’s car.

Data downloaded from the car’s black box proved our client wasn’t speeding and had braked as soon as possible. The insurance company settled the claim.

These black boxes, also known as event data recorders or EDRs, date back to 1990 and are on 96 percent of new cars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants to require all new vehicles to come equipped with black boxes by September 2014.

I have strong concerns about privacy and the collection and storing of data by corporations and the government. However, the basic information obtained and recorded by black boxes today should not cause privacy concerns for several reasons:

1. The 30 seconds of data recorded by black boxes after a recordable event is the minimum necessary to get a snapshot of the vehicle’s actions prior to a wreck. This function does not continuously track and record your every movement.

2. Event data is recorded and saved internally on the black box only; it is not uploaded to some giant database where it can be monitored or used for some other purpose.

3. Accessing event data is not easy or inexpensive. The information can only be done using proprietary software and has to be interpreted by an expert to testify in court.

So why has the public reacted so negatively to the NHSTA’s proposal to require black boxes in all passenger vehicles? Part of it is fear following recent revelations about secret government collection of emails and texts. This fear is misplaced.

The problem is not with the basic function of black boxes in collecting “event data,” but from fear of an expansion of the data collection. While it might be true that technology advances could lead to monitoring and recording of a driver’s personal habits — from their radio stations to their cell phone use — that expansion is not available today. Privacy concerns about the advancement of black box technology in this regard is legitimate and should be addressed when we cross that line. But the current proposed solution — allowing drivers to turn off the black box altogether — is a step in the wrong direction.

Both civil and criminal legal issues often depend on a single witness’s recollection of events that happen in a split second. When someone’s livelihood or freedom is at risk, a black box can literally change the course of their life.

In addition to determining the cause of accidents, it is hoped that another benefit is that drivers begin to practice safer driving habits. With more than 30,000 Americans dying every year in automobile accidents, if we can do something as non-intrusive as installing a small black box where data is only compiled post-crash, we could potentially save thousands of lives and protect our loved ones.

David Krugler is an attorney with Cash, Krugler & Fredericks LLC in Atlanta.

Info can save lives

By Emanuel Jones

Last year, more than 25,000 Americans tragically lost their lives in automobile accidents. These horrific occurrences happen all too frequently throughout these United States. Although these numbers have decreased dramatically in the past decade, thanks in large part to improved vehicle safety, we still have a long way to go.

One step towards increased safety in our automobiles is the use of black boxes, also known as an event data recorder. These instruments are already in the majority of Americans’ cars and are used much like black boxes on airplanes. In the event of a mechanical failure or horrific crash, the black box is used to recreate the events surrounding the unfortunate event. Recently, the same method has been applied to the black boxes found in vehicles throughout the country. Law enforcement officials and insurance companies have turned to these reliable devices in an effort to find out who is at fault for the most tragic accidents.

There are those who argue that use of black boxes in the court of law is a violation of privacy for the automobile owner. I couldn’t disagree more — black boxes are directly linked to improved safety on our highways and roads. Further, the automobile manufacturers are trying to shield this information from public consumption as it could damage their credibility; much like vehicle recalls do.

By understanding what happened in the moments leading up to an accident, we can determine who was responsible and gain better insight to any mechanical malfunctions that the greater population of drivers should, and must, know about. I also believe drivers will adjust their behavior accordingly as they learn about these new developments. Reckless action behind the wheel of a car, such as speeding and drunk driving, is likely to decrease drastically when people are made aware of these developments.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is responsible for issuing recalls and technical service bulletins. However, this only happens after detrimental things occur. It is my hope that we can use black boxes and the information they record to get word out to the public sooner to relay crucial details surrounding the viability of the vehicles on our roads. These details should not be withheld from public consumption with so much at stake. Automobiles are a daily part of the lives of millions of Americans, and every driver deserves access to information pertaining to the overall state of their vehicle.

As the owner of multiple car dealerships, I’m well versed in the mechanical issues that people encounter every day. I’m also extremely aware of the horrific nature of car accidents and the pain they inflict on individuals and loved ones. More must be done to protect the people who use our roads and the black box is a huge step in the right direction. With the 2014 legislative session right around the corner, I will use my role as a state senator to investigate ways we can address these issues through existing law and new legislation.

State Senator Emanuel Jones, a Democrat, represents Decatur.

17 comments Add your comment

Morris Devereaux

September 24th, 2013
5:22 pm

I don’t know why we even try to pretend that we have any expectation of privacy, freedom or liberty in this country anymore. We have a government that can track our every move. We have to get permission from them to have medical care. They tell us what property we can keep and they decide which of their friends are exempt from taxes. Other than just throwing us in jail (which does happen if we question them), what else needs to be done before people realize that America has become a nation of slaves.


September 24th, 2013
2:04 pm

As soon as they can detect texting and other cell phone related distractions, I’m in,


September 24th, 2013
10:19 am

When the US Constitution was written there was no such thing as an automobile. Does that mean that Constitutional Law cannot refer to and interpret law in relation to the automobile?

Whirled Peas

September 24th, 2013
8:15 am

The Federal Gov’t has no damn business telling me or anyone else what I must have in my car. The U.S. Constitution specifies the areas where the Federal Gov’t can regulate. All other areas are the authority of the individual States.
Get Big Brother out of my life. I don’t want him in my health care, my car or my bedroom.


September 24th, 2013
5:48 am

Ah-h-h-h, the LAWYERS want the black boxes so they can sue more people. Where does this nonsense end? It is nobody’s business where I’m going and how fast I’m driving to get there, unless you’re the policeman that catches me speeding. I hate this country we seem to be creating. My God, where does my freedom begin?


September 23rd, 2013
8:55 pm

Why don’t we get robots for chauffeurs? They could come fully equipped with all surveillance apparatus, a small bar, a direct line to GBI, FBI, CIA, and the local sheriff. If any robot breaks the law, it’s the junk yard and no parole!

A pox on the booby black box!

Don’t thank me. I was born to solve problems.


September 23rd, 2013
8:18 pm

We should go a step further and make dash camera recorders standard equipment as well. This would help establish who is at fault in a collision…who ran the red light, conclusively. We should also require policemen to wear individual recorders to establish exactly what happened in an encounter leading to an arrest. There would be less useless litigation and more certainty in court, similarly to the effect of DNA technology in some criminal cases.

Enough of the “tea party” paranoia