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What a 'black box' knows about you



Spy inside your carYour car's "black box" knows how fast you're going, whether you're buckled up and if you're on the gas or the brakes.

It remembers these things for only a few seconds at a time--until you hit something. Then, like the airplane black boxes we've read about for years, it stores the data and can spill some eye-opening secrets to safety investigators, attorneys and your car insurance company.

Called event data recorders (EDRs for short), these devices are already in many autos, but a rule making them mandatory on new cars is only just now hitting the statute books. White House approval on Thursday cleared the way for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to implement the law.

Though virtually all new cars are equipped with EDRs, a rule making them mandatory has been years in the making because of privacy concerns cited by automakers.

EDRs are designed to gather information during an accident, much the same way a transponder helps aviation officials piece together why a jet goes down. The EDR is usually placed under the driver's seat and is wired to other car components, like the air bag.

Starting with 2011 models, automakers were required to tell buyers that a recorder is installed on their cars. (The information usually is in the owner's manual.) And while each automaker currently builds a box that fits its own needs and standards, NHTSA has recently decided that all vehicles starting with 2013 models must have standardized EDRs that record a trove of relevant, very specific details, such as:

  • Change in forward crash speed
  • Maximum change in forward crash speed
  • Speed the vehicle was traveling
  • How far the accelerator pedal was pressed)
  • Whether or not the brake was applied
  • Ignition cycle (number of power cycles applied to the EDR) at the time of the crash
  • Ignition cycle (number of power cycles applied to the EDR) when the EDR data was downloaded
  • Whether or not the driver was using a safety belt
  • Whether or not the frontal air bag warning lamp was on
  • Number of crash events
  • Time between the first two crash events, if applicable
  • Whether or not the EDR completed recording

Officials stress that the information is valuable when compiling federal or state accident statistics and creating safer cars and roads.

"EDRs can provide information about a crash that can't be obtained through more traditional investigation techniques," says a statement on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) website. "Police, crash investigators, automakers, insurance adjusters, and highway safety researchers can use this information to analyze what occurred during a crash. The data may help automakers improve occupant restraint systems and vehicle structures."

But an EDR is also an unblinking eyewitness to any incident that is recorded in its memory.

The car insurance question

NHTSA has strict guidelines for EDR use, saying the gathered information belongs to the vehicle's owner and can be used only with consent in most cases. However, it does note that data could be obtained in a criminal investigation through a court order. (EDRs have provided key evidence in an increasing number of manslaughter and reckless driving cases).

Your insurer needs your consent to access the EDR in your car. However, you may have given the insurer that permission when you accepted your policy and agreed to provide full cooperation in auto insurance claims investigations. Seven states prohibit insurance contracts from requiring policyholders to consent to access. They are:

  • Connecticut
  • New Hampshire
  • New York
  • Oregon
  • Texas
  • Virginia
  • Washington

What could an auto insurance company with access to your EDR learn from it? A lot--like whether you really did swerve to miss a deer, or whether the accident was severe enough to cause the whiplash you're claiming.

R. Brent Cooper, a Dallas attorney who has followed the use of "black boxes" for several years, says insurers often plumb EDR data in their accident investigations.

"They use them primarily to see if what the driver says happened during the accident actually happened," he explains. "I wouldn't say they do it across-the-board. It's not worth it with a fender-bender, but it would probably be done with a major crash."

Isn't this what usage-based insurance is all about?

Major national insurers have rolled out voluntary programs such as Progressive's Snapshot and State Farm's In-Drive to offer drivers a big discount--as much as 50 percent--for careful behavior that's verified by data captured by devices installed in their customers' cars. (See our guide to pay-as-you-drive discounts.)

But those devices aren't linked to EDRs in any way.

"Our position on EDRs is that we would only use that data in a claims investigation with customer consent or if we're required to do so by law," says Progressive spokesperson Brittany Senary.

Attorney Cooper agrees. "Accident re-creation appears to be the main thrust," he says.

But others worry that data, once gathered, can serve many ends besides safety research.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., wonders if insurers could try to use the information against policyholders, even drop them after analyzing data.

"Most critically, these data could be used in claims disputes by the insurer and others against you," he warns. "Police could get access to your driving habits, as could state agencies."

A forum at Wired.com's Autopia site shows that some posters are suspicious of what the government and insurers can do with EDR records, while others point to improved safety and legal benefits.

"The problem here is not that the data is being recorded, but that the NHTSA--a governmental body--wants to make it both mandatory and force you to let them and whoever they deem fit get a look at it if they so desire," writes "Vic83." The poster adds: "It's a governmental camel's nose under the tent, and it's not to be trusted."

But "Just Sayin" had this to say: "Let the facts speak for themselves. You driving within the law, we don't have a problem. You driving like a nut, I can submit the facts to a jury."


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1 Responses to "What a 'black box' knows about you"
  1. jack

    Yes, black box privacy is very important for all cars drivers.