Big Brother in the car
Washington Times | August 9 2004
Government officials at the National Transportation Safety Board are trying to leverage an emotive incident to push regulations that infringe on American privacy and civil liberties.
On July 16, 2003, George Weller, 86, drove his car headlong into an outdoor farmers market in Santa Monica, Calif., killing 10 people and injuring 63. The safety board said last Tuesday that, based on its investigation of that accident, the government should require "black box" data recorders in all passenger vehicles. But officials failed to substantiate why the accident, while certainly tragic, proved a need for black boxes — which record vehicle performance and driver actions, such as brake activity, speed and whether seat belts were in use.
The board reached the logical conclusion that the driver plowed into the market after having mistakenly hit his car's accelerator, rather than the brakes. There were no signs of mechanical failure. Such a conclusion can be confidently reached without the aid of black boxes. Through old-fashioned police work, investigators can determine if brakes were used and can estimate the car's speed at the point of collision.
But even though the cause of the accident appears obvious enough, the board said investigators would have gained a better scientific understanding of the driver's behavior had his 1992 Buick LeSabre been outfitted with a data recorder. Just what kind of scientific understanding were they looking for?
That July 16, 2003, accident seems clear-cut. It was caused by driver error. An elderly man hit the wrong pedal, and no magic box would have saved the lives of the victims. It appears the safety board, which has only the power to investigate and make recommendations, picked that particular accident not because it technically supported its recommendation, but because of its egregious nature.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which has the authority to make requirements, has correctly found that regulation requiring data recorders isn't necessary, since many automakers are including them anyway. An estimated 25 million vehicles are equipped with black boxes, though many consumers aren't aware of them.
This points to another problem. Who does the information in the boxes belong to? In some states, authorities can seize the devices as evidence at a crash scene provided they have a warrant. Use of the black boxes could grow wider, and insurance companies could lay claim to their information as well.
Lawmakers in more than 20 states have considered bills that would require dealers to notify consumers of the existence of black boxes in vehicles. California is the only state to pass such a measure. At the very least, consumers should be allowed to decide whether they want to purchase a car that could be used against them.