August 16, 2017 – San Diego Union-Tribune
Did you know you likely have a “black box” in your car that records information in the event of a crash?
I didn’t either.
In the wake of a dramatic crash on state Route 125 earlier this month, in which a semi-truck driver smashed through a guardrail into oncoming traffic, officers were hopeful the vehicle’s “black box” would reveal more about what happened before two people were killed.
The technical term for the device is an event data recorder, and they’ve been placed in vehicles since the 1990s. Early iterations were mostly designed to track when airbags deployed, but the ones placed in newer cars are much more sophisticated.
The gadgets, which aren’t black, can now record dozens of indicators including speed, whether seat belts were worn, if the brakes were applied and steering position. Most event recorders capture about six seconds of data before a crash, but some newer models can retain up to six minutes.
If it’s not in your car now, it will probably be in your next one. They were made mandatory for all new vehicles as of September 2014. (Here’s a list of all the vehicles they are in.)
California Highway Patrol Officer Scott Parent said the devices preserve data that even the most trained crash investigator could struggle to capture. In vehicular homicide cases, for example, officers are challenged to demonstrate a person was driving recklessly, or with negligence.
“What better way to prove (that) then to look at the five second before a driver killed someone?” Parent said. “There are reconstruction methods we use… but when you have a computer that was onboard the vehicle that was involved, and the data coming out is really good, why not rely upon that data.”
A case doesn’t need to involve the possibility of criminal charges before an investigator taps into the gadget, Parent said.
“There are many times where the information available at the scene is not enough to reconstruct certain aspects of a crash,” he said. “Rain is a perfect example. Tire and pressure marks aren’t really deposited in rain and it can be hard to reconstruct a collision. Now we can rely on EDR data and it tells us everything.”
Parent said manufacturers and private companies that professionally piece together crashes have tested the quality of the data, and that it’s consistently accurate.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has taken the position that the recorders help make vehicles and roadways safer by helping organizations better understand how drivers react and how key safety systems operate in crashes.
But some privacy experts have expressed concern over who can access the data and under what conditions, since the evidence can be used in court to prove fault. In a 2012 memo, the American Civil Liberties Union said that drivers should know the technology is in their cars, and that the information in it belongs to them.
Legislation governing these principles differs state to state, but in California, investigators need to obtain consent from the registered vehicle owner or a warrant to get into the black box, Parent said.