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Privacy of vehicle information being debated

Associated Press | March 13, 2005
By JAMES WARDEN

Not long after Sen. Raymon Holmberg bought a new sedan, he heard a report about "black boxes" -- computer chips that store information on a driver's speed, seat belt use and whether his vehicle's air bag is working properly.

Holmberg's car dealer hadn't told him about the device, or whether his late-model Nissan even had one. The Grand Forks Republican did some research, and his concerns rose that the box data could be used to track his driving habits, or even be used against him if he had an accident.

"I didn't realize that Big Brother was car-pooling with me," he said. "When I bought my car, I didn't realize I was also buying a highway patrolman to sit in the back seat."

Holmberg is sponsoring a bill, now being considered in the North Dakota House, that would require new vehicle buyers to be told if it is equipped with a black box, and prohibit the data it collects from being used in court.

It could be retrieved only when the car or truck is being serviced, to use in improving vehicle safety, or to measure the body's reaction to accidents -- if the person's identity is not disclosed. Subscription services such as OnStar, which can be used to track a vehicle's movements, are exempted.

Insurers and auto makers have been lobbying against Holmberg's measure. Thomas Kelsch, a lobbyist for General Motors, argues it is nonsensical to bar information collected by the computer chip from being used in court.

"What's the societal good that would result from the suppression of valuable crash data?" he asked.

Holmberg says the provision is intended to protect people's privacy.

"The problem is that most people don't realize these devices are in their vehicle, that the information recorded may be used against them, and there's no sort of regulation about who owns that information," he said.

North Dakota is one of 11 states considering black-box regulation this year, said Pam Greenberg, who tracks privacy issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

California requires dealers and vehicle rental companies to inform drivers when a car has a black box. New York has made it illegal for rental companies to use global positioning system technology to track drivers, and use the data to charge extra fees or penalties.

There are several types of "black boxes," which are also referred to as event data recorders, or EDRs, experts say. When a vehicle crashes, it stores information from the last few seconds before an accident, including data on how fast the vehicle was moving, whether the driver was braking, and whether he or she was wearing a seat belt.

Jim Harris, owner of Harris Technical Services, an accident investigation company based in Port St. Lucie, Fla., said the boxes cannot record voices, pinpoint a vehicle's location, or determine who was driving.

Holmberg said the devices' use easily could be expanded.

"If a manufacturer decided tomorrow to track three months of data instead of five seconds, there's nothing that would make them have to tell anybody. Unknown to us, they might add a GPS or remote satellite component," he said.

Private accident investigators say privacy concerns about the devices are overblown.

"These guys are trying to roll back North Dakota courts to the Dark Ages," Harris said. "What are you going to do, leave out video tapes?"

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration says about 15 percent of vehicles, or about 30 million cars and trucks, have black boxes. They are much more common in newer vehicles. About 65 to 90 percent of 2004 cars and trucks have them, the agency says.

Rae Tyson, a spokesman for the agency, said the department uses the devices to check vehicle safety. When officials hear about a crash that fits some criteria the agency is studying, investigators are dispatched to examine the collision, he said.

The agency is interested, for example, in how air bags can cause injuries in a crash. As many as 1,000 black boxes are checked each year, said Elly Martin, an agency spokeswoman.

Investigators will check the vehicle, the accident scene and the police report, and ask vehicle owners for black-box data. If the owner declines to allow access to the black box, the information is not collected.

"We want the most accurate scientific data available," Tyson said. "There's a whole lot of difference between an accident where you're guessing at this information, and an accident where you know this information."

NHTSA wants to standardize the information stored on the recorders, and its format, but Tyson said the agency does not intend to make devices mandatory.

"We'll leave the question of privacy to others," he said. "Our position is that black boxes are the property of the (vehicle) owner."

Alan Adler, manager of product safety communications at General Motors in Warren, Mich., said the company keeps the data it gets from EDRs confidential.

Much of that information comes from vehicles the company owns, including test vehicles and company vehicles that employees get, he said. General Motors reveals personal information only when subpoenaed or to defend itself in court, he said.

"We do everything we can to protect individuals' privacy," said Adler.

Rusty Haight, the director of the Collision Safety Institute, an organization that researches crashes and trains accident investigators, said black boxes were introduced in cars along with air bags in the 1970s.

Air bag sensors already collected the information, and it was a small step to allow researchers to see how well systems were performing, Haight said.

Harris said because the recorders are usually linked to air bags, the computer chip controlling the air bags often stores the crash information as well. Some Ford vehicles keep the information on the throttle control chip instead, he said.

Two North Dakota Highway Patrol troopers have been specially trained to use the devices for accident investigations, Patrol Capt. Mark Bethke said.

Investigators must get a warrant to pull crash information from a recorder, just as they would with any other evidence, he said. The patrol probably uses such information less than once a month and has never used it in court, Bethke said.

Trooper Rick Richard said revelations gleaned from black-box data are rare.

"It hasn't brought any great conclusions that I hadn't already come across through my routine methods," Richard said.

Harris said other states have been using recorders in court since 2003. In one early case, a pickup and car crashed head-on while driving on a lightly traveled, two-lane Florida road. The two people in the car died, and the truck driver was slightly injured.

Police charged the truck driver with killing the two people in the car, but data collected from his truck's black box showed he was not speeding. John Buchanan, a Miami accident reconstruction expert in the case, said the victims had been drinking, and their blood-alcohol levels had more influence on jurors than the recorder data.

Buchanan said investigators must compare what the recorder says to the physical evidence at an accident scene. In one case he investigated, improved tires, gear adjustments and a modification to the car's computer made the readings higher than they should have been, he said.

"I'm a big believer in the box," Buchanan said. "But you cannot just take a box, read what it says and say that's what happened."

Other types of chips, which anyone can buy, record long-term information about how a vehicle is being driven. Parents can see if teenage drivers are racing down the road, and companies can make sure employees don't take extended breaks. Holmberg said his legislation does not include those types of chips.

"I'm not concerned how parents rat on their kids," he said.

An insurance company is using the same type of chip to adjust insurance rates. Progressive Insurance began a program last year which gives drivers a chip that can be used to transmit data to the company.

The program is voluntary, and Progressive gives the drivers a break on their insurance rates based on when, how much and how fast they drove, said Shannon Radigan, a Progressive spokeswoman in Mayfield Village, Ohio. The average discount is between 12 and 15 percent, she said.

"Anything that helps us better understand our customers' behavior behind the wheel and its correlation to loss helps us to price better, which is good news for everyone," Radigan said.

Insurance companies may already have limited access to some data. Dick Luedke, a State Farm spokesman in Bloomington, Ill., said the company's insurance contracts require customers to help with investigations. That includes letting State Farm look at their vehicles.

"If we think that the black box will have information we need to investigate, we have access to it," he said.

North Dakota auto dealers say they aren't hearing many complaints about black boxes.

Pat Tierney, sales manager for Saturn of Bismarck, said only one customer ever mentioned the subject, and that was after the customer heard about Holmberg's bill. Sales people at three other North Dakota General Motors dealers said no customer has asked about the chips.

Even among police, the devices are seldom discussed.

"We've never even utilized one. They're just not very prevalent," said Fargo Sgt. Joel Vettel.

Holmberg said constituent response to his legislation has been favorable, although not many have written him about the issue.

Holmberg said a staffer for California Assemblyman Tim Leslie, the sponsor of the California black box law that passed in 2003, also wrote to support his legislation.

"I'm not one of those who sees black helicopters," he said. "(The black box issue) hits home because the car and home are two areas where society feels a modicum of privacy."

The bill is SB2200.

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