While automakers are usually more than happy to talk about
the technology in their vehicles, there are a few things they tend to keep
close to the vest. One of those is the vehicle event data recorder or black
box. These devices work much like the ones you hear about after a plane crash,
they record a number of data points before, during and after an accident. In many cases this data can help determine
fault in an accident.
Unfortunately, that black box can be a spy for your
insurance company, letting them know things about your driving that you might
want to keep to yourself.
High profile accidents tend to make the news when it comes
to black boxes. Former New
Jersey Governor Jon Corzine's Chevrolet Suburban was clocked at 91 miles
per hour according the black box right before an accident. The driver told the
police a different story. While
politicians and celebrities might make the headlines, your black box can end up
tattling on you if an accident occurs.
It’s All Computers
Most modern cars tell their secrets when a mechanic plugs
their computer into the data port. In the majority of cars this is located at
the base of the steering wheel. The data port can tell a mechanic a number of
things, when the car is due for an oil change, the last time it was tuned up
and even the condition of the brake pads.
The data port is also connected to a sensor that is
recording certain information as the car is driven. This sensor overwrites
itself when it gets full and continues to record whenever the car is running,
until there is an accident.
If the vehicle is in an accident the sensor records the last
20 seconds of what was going on, including the vehicle speed, wheel direction,
when the airbags deployed and when and if the brakes were applied. This data
can be extremely useful, or damaging depending on whether you are trying to
keep a driving secret.
Who Owns the Vehicle
Data and Should Insurers Have Access?
So who has access to the black box data? While technically
the data belongs to the car owner, others are going to want access to it. The
police can subpoena it if they feel the driver is being less than forthright
with them. Your insurer will probably want to have a look to help determine
fault and in some cases the automaker may use it. Toyota
discovered that many of the unintended acceleration issues experienced by car
owners was actually a misplaced floor mat which caused drivers to hit the
accelerator and not the brake.
Insurers will look not only to find fault in an accident but
also to investigate claims of whiplash. The black box records acceleration and
deceleration which can determine the jolt a driver would receive.
The black box can be a lifesaver when it proves that you
were not at fault, but what if it helps an insurer deny your claim? Refusing to
turn over the data can send up red flags to an insurance company and in some
states you may not have a choice.
The legal issues can be difficult. An insurance adjuster can
take a look at the black box by simply plugging their laptop into the data
port. Only 13 states have actually passed laws on whether insurers have access
to this data. In the majority of these states, the insurance company must have
the permission of the owner to access the black box. In the rest of the states it is a serious gray
In California they simply refer to the vehicle owner, which
could be the insurer if they total the car and pay out the claim. Some insurers put a clause in their policy
that let them access the black box. It is best to read your policy to see where
you insurer falls on the subject of the black box.
While the NHTSA is working to make black boxes mandatory in
all cars, they are already in installed in 96 percent of new cars and are
45 data points.
In the end your best bet is to always drive safely, avoiding
embarrassing and dangerous behavior that your black box might just tell your
Black boxes record the last 20 seconds of data during an
accident. The box can record up to 45 data points and can be used by insurers
and law enforcement to determine fault in an accident. Whether your insurer has
access to the box varies by state and insurer.