As if your smartphone and car’s GPS system aren’t tracking you
enough, privacy advocates are worried about another device that could track
where you go: “black boxes” in cars.
Saving your life or invading your privacy are the two extreme
options around plans by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to
require event data recorders, also called EDRs or “black boxes,” in all new
cars and light trucks starting next year.
The cigarette pack-sized devices are already in more than 90% of new cars since automakers have been
installing them for years. When a car crashes or its airbags deploy, a
continuous information loop of five to 10 seconds before impact are
automatically preserved, much like the black box recorders in airplanes.
EDRs in cars record information such as speed, if the brake was
applied, if the driver was steering erratically, and who was wearing a
The data can be used to determine the cause of accidents and to
help make cars safer, such recorder data of Toyota acceleration problems in
2009 and 2010 that helped the NHTSA conclude that sticky gas pedals and floor
mats that could jam them probably caused the problems.
Black box data is also sought by insurance investigators, lawyers
and others looking to assign financial responsibility for accidents.
“That silent electronic sentinel that you bought as standard
equipment on your vehicle can be used to incriminate you,” says John Bowman,
spokesman for the National
Motorists Association, a driver advocacy organization.
Thirteen states restrict what insurance companies can do with EDR
information and require police to get a warrant before gathering the data.
Privacy advocates worry that insurers could raise rates just by gathering the
data at any time, though the data is stored in the recorder and isn’t sent
electronically to insurers. The NHTSA so far hasn’t put limits on how the
information can be used.
“It’s an invasion of privacy, but the important point is people
are driving on a public road” and shouldn’t expect privacy, says Paul Green, a
research professor at the University of Michigan Transportation
“When we analyze crashes, it’s kind of tough to determine what
happened,” Green says of how police collect information without a data
recorder. Police can see what happened after a crash, but often don’t know what
a driver did in the seconds before the crash, he says.
If a driver is playing with the radio or doesn’t brake hard
enough to respond to something happening in front of them, the data recorder
can provide information that can help engineers build better warning systems,
The data collected can prove if a driver is telling the truth.
Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray initially said after a November 2011 crash that he wasn’t speeding and was wearing
a seat belt. But the data recorder showed he was driving more than 100 mph and
that he wasn’t belted in.
Car owners can’t opt out of EDRs and turn them off, which is an
option that should be allowed, says the NMA’s Bowman.
“There is only one true solution,” he says. “The vehicle owner
should have the option to disable the EDR without affecting functionality of
the vehicle itself.”
“Responsible adults are capable of making responsible decisions
for themselves and for their families,” Bowman says. “If one owner decides that
there are benefits to having an active EDR in full information-gathering mode
and another doesn’t want the data collected, both should be within their
Current EDR design doesn’t allow wireless transmission of data,
it likely will in the future, Bowman says. Some insurance companies already
remotely upload vehicle performance data with the permission of their
policyholders, which can provide industrious third parties a way to capture EDR
contents without the vehicle owner’s permission, he says.
Farmers Insurance Group doesn’t offer discounts to drivers who
voluntarily allow an insurer to monitor their driving habits through a
recording device, but Cristofer Pereyra, a Farmers agent in Phoenix,
says he doesn’t see them as an invasion of privacy as long as the recorders are
optional and a possible discount is offered.
“If these devices can help insurance carriers understand driving
habits better, then it can never do anything but good,” Pereyra says. “Of
course, the good driver would benefit from the findings and the not-so-good
drivers would suffer from their own habits, premium wise.”