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Black Boxes In Cars Test Privacy vs. Safety

vehicle black boxAs 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 seatbelt.

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 Research Institute.

“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, Green says. 

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 rights.”

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.”