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Car data recorders tell information about your driving

 JOHN WILEN | October 29, 2006

Better watch what you do when you drive. Big Brother may be watching you.

An increasing number of auto manufacturers are installing tiny “black boxes” in cars. These microchips — known technically as event data recorders, or EDRs — record a limited amount of information about the vehicle.

How limited? EDRs typically record about 5 seconds worth of data on wheel speed, how far the accelerator is depressed, whether the brakes are engaged and whether passengers are wearing seat belts.

They do not record conversations. They don't keep a running average of how fast you drive, whether you come to a complete stop at intersections or how deft you are at balancing a cell phone on your shoulder while sipping a caf latte at 75 mph.

“You're not going to be going down the road and get pulled over by a cop, and the cop plugs into your car and can tell what you've been doing,” said Jim Harris, owner of Harris Technical Services, a Port St. Lucie, Fla., accident reconstruction firm.

Their purpose is simply to record the last five seconds of basic data before an accident.

“From an insurer's perspective, the job is to figure out what happened in an auto accident,” said Sam Marshall, CEO of the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania. “EDR data is a piece of the puzzle.”

They have also been used by police, including in Bucks County in 2004 where the district attorney used evidence from an EDR in a juvenile court case that ended with an involuntary manslaughter conviction.

A bill working its way through the state Senate would require automakers to tell customers when they're buying a car with an EDR, and to specify what the EDR records.

The bill would also limit when the data on an EDR can be accessed by people who don't own the car. The bill would require anyone other than the owner who wants to access the data — such as the police or a person suing the car's owner — to get the owner's permission, a court order or court-sanctioned subpoena.

At the moment, there are no regulations governing who can access EDR data. As a result, EDRs are sometimes cut out of crashed cars by police or their data is downloaded by an insurance company investigator with know-how and the right tools. Auto owners often aren't even aware their car is equipped with such a device, let alone that others can access it, experts say.

“Data is being used indiscriminately against drivers,” said Cathy Rossi, spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Senate Bill 1050 is a step in the right direction, Rossi says. But the AAA would prefer that a court order be required to access the device, which is more difficult to obtain than a subpoena.

“The threshold in this bill is a little bit lower than what we would like to see,” Rossi said.

The Insurance Federation's Marshall disagrees, arguing that information in an EDR should be as accessible to adversaries in a court dispute as any other type of information, such as medical records and the results of police crash investigations.

Much of the controversy over EDRs has hinged on a lack of good information about what they can, and can't do, said Harris.

While they are commonly referred to as black boxes, Harris said, that designation more accurately describes vehicle data recorders. Vehicle data recorders are not installed in cars by manufacturers. They can be purchased in the “after market” and installed in vehicles. VDRs can do many of the things that have caused concerns about EDRs, such as tracking where and when a vehicle goes and at what speed.

Vehicle data recorders, which are typically used by businesses that maintain fleets of vehicles, are much more akin to airplane flight data recorders than the EDRs installed at the factory, Harris said.

Many “Big Brother” concerns were raised about EDRs at a recent Harrisburg hearing on the bill, said Harris. But as it became clear that factory-installed event data recorders don't retain the same amount or type of information as the after-market vehicle data recorders, many of those concerns evaporated, he said.

The remaining controversy appears to center around issues of access and accuracy.

It appears the bill would solve some access concerns by imposing minimum standards for who can access the data and when. AAA's Rossi would like there to be a way for consumers to access the data, which at the moment only police and insurance companies seem to know how to get and interpret.

Rossi also noted that there are no guidelines as to how EDRs should be calibrated, or what they should contain. Relying on them to heavily for critical crash data is risky, she said.

“They're not perfect,” Rossi said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently issued a ruling, which does not go into effect until 2011, that will require EDRs to record certain data. But it does not require vehicles to have EDRs.

Harris says he's seen cases in which EDRs recorded data that a car could not possibly have generated.

“I've had a case in which the recorder showed the car going at a speed in excess of the car's capability,” Harris said.

Because the EDR records wheel speed — not an odometer reading or some other measure of actual speed — an EDR in a car that is flipped on its roof with wheels spinning could record a high rate of speed though the car is not moving, he said.

One widely-cited example of bad EDR data is a case from Westmoreland County in which a driver on an icy road hit another vehicle, killing two people. The driver was accused of vehicular manslaughter. While the car's EDR reported it was traveling between 51 and 60 mph at the time, both the police accident reconstruction and driver claimed the car was going between 30 and 40 mph. The driver was acquitted.

The Insurance Federation's Marshall hopes EDR data will be viewed as just one piece of evidence that can be used to help investigators figure out what happened.

“It gets swept up in a legitimate concern about privacy,” Marshall said. “But this isn't Big Brother. This isn't some spooky, dangerous thing.”

 

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