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Is your car spying on you?

April 20, 2004
The Tribune

Information culled from so-called "black boxes" has long helped investigators reconstruct the crucial seconds before a fatal plane crash.

But could such devices also be used to unravel the facts behind car wrecks? In fact, that already happens.

Most new cars, trucks and sport-utility vehicles come equipped with their own version of flight data recorders, known as event data recorders. Some are sophisticated enough to tell how fast you were going, whether you were wearing your seatbelt and whether your foot was on the gas or the brake.

It is not entirely new technology. Original sensing systems were first installed in 1974 by General Motors for use with air bags. But as sensing equipment advanced, some companies adapted or made software changes to collect additional data.

Today, EDRs can record a driver's seatbelt usage, vehicle speed, brake use, throttle position, engine speed and change in velocity up to five seconds before a crash.

"They measure the same thing an accident reconstruction expert has measured for years," said Philip Haseltine, president of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety Inc., a group funded by automobile manufacturers. "But without a tape measure and more accurately."

EDRs are increasingly being used as evidence in traffic accidents.

The information may be used in the upcoming court hearings for a Vallejo man charged in the crash last year that killed two San Luis Obispo High School students on a YMCA ski trip. The preliminary hearing was pushed back to April 26 in Fresno County Superior Court as lawyers debated the accuracy and relevancy of such data.

Last year, the information contained in an EDR helped convict a South Dakota congressman of felony manslaughter after he was found to be speeding during a fatal crash.

These uses are only expected to become more prevalent as vehicles with data recorders become the norm.

Privacy issues

If you're asking why you didn't know your car is spying on you, you're not alone.

A new state law, set to go into effect July 1, requires manufacturers of new motor vehicles made with EDRs sold or leased in California to disclose that fact in the owner's manual.

The size of a videocassette, an EDR is usually located beneath the driver's seat or between the driver and passenger seats.

Haseltine is a supporter of EDRs but agrees that the technology is not well-known among car owners.

"People could have a car for years and never know about the recorder," Haseltine said.

Randell Steele, 51, of Pismo Beach didn't have any idea that such a device was in his car, and he wasn't thrilled at the prospect.

"Talk about Big Brother coming after you," Steele said.

Privacy groups want automakers to do more to alert consumers.

David Sobel, the general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research center in Washington, D.C., said there should be more prominent disclosure than the owner's manual. The lack of knowledge about the existence and function of EDRs is preventing a valuable privacy debate from occurring, he said.

Use in accident research

Under California law, data recorder information belongs to the vehicle owner. A police officer cannot pull a driver over for speeding, for example, and demand access to the data. However, in a major accident law enforcement can get a court order to gain access to the EDRs.

Once a car has been impounded, all information contained within a vehicle can and will be used in any investigation, said Stephen Neumann, a member of a CHP Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team that handles particularly complex or fatal crashes in the county.

Neumann estimated that the information is used less than a couple of times per year locally.

It's important for investigators to evaluate crash findings before reviewing an EDR so that the recorded information doesn't influence their assessment, he said.

Improving safety

Manufacturers say they install the devices for engineering and diagnostic purposes.

The systems help manufacturers better understand how a car will respond in a real-world crash, Haseltine said.

GM has been able to utilize the data from EDRs to learn more about crashes and improve occupant protection, said Jim Schell, a GM spokesman.

For instance, by examining EDR data, GM was able to locate an air-bag deployment malfunction and voluntarily recalled 850,000 Chevrolet Cavaliers and Pontiac Sunfires, he said.

"It's a very objective form of collecting crash data," Schell said.

Regardless of the potential benefits, privacy groups want the public to make the final decision on whether EDRs should be installed.

"Users should know about the technology's capabilities and have options," said Neil Schuster, president and chief executive officer of Intelligent Transportation Society of America, a nonprofit organization.

Both manufactures and the public need to look at EDR privacy issues and how to balance the pros and cons of the device, he said.

"Ideally people should have a right to say, 'I want that feature or not,' " he said.

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