United States: Identifying And Securing Crash Data From A Multitude Of Sources

(May 2022) -  Those who practice transportation law are acutely aware of the accident investigation process. There are essential tasks that must be completed in short order, such as driver and witness interviews, obtaining crash reports, retaining the right accident reconstruction expert, and coordinating and completing inspections of the accident scene and involved vehicles. Of course, this list does not cover the entire gamut of tasks that the transportation law practitioner must complete in the first hours and days of an assignment. That is not the purpose of this article. Rather, this article is meant to serve as a reminder that our understanding of where crash data can be found must go beyond simply downloading an engine control module (ECM) or air bag control module (ACM).

Electronic data recorders (EDR) are, of course, potential gold mines when it comes to crash data. For a transportation newbie, the concept of what an EDR is and where to find crash data may be limited to the aforementioned ECM and ACM. These modules can be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to securing crash data. Many vehicles are equipped with other types of modules, devices, and advanced safety systems that record crash data. Experienced transportation law practitioners know that these sources of crash data exist and are keen to ensure that they are identified and downloaded by an expert witness. Since there is often only one opportunity to inspect a vehicle, it is important that all sources of crash data are promptly identified and downloaded, or that the modules and devices that store crash data are removed and preserved for later data extraction.

While the identification of modules, devices, and advanced safety systems within a particular vehicle will largely be handled by the accident reconstruction expert, the lawyer or claims professional must remain engaged and be prepared to ask pointed questions to ensure that crash data is not irrevocably lost. The first step of this process is having a working knowledge of the various types of modules, devices, and advanced safety systems that record crash data, such as those identified below. The next step is taking the time to speak with your expert before, during, and after the inspection. Unfortunately, many folks skip this step and miss out on an opportunity to (1) learn from an expert, (2) verify the inspection protocol to be implemented, (3) confirm that the expert has researched the potential sources of crash data on a particular vehicle, and (4) confirm that the expert is prepared to tackle any data collection obstacles that might be encountered.

Below is a non-exhaustive list of the types of modules, devices, and advanced safety systems to be aware of when gearing up for a vehicle inspection. It is vital that these are identified and downloaded to avoid missing out on key crash data that could turn the tide in a case. Of note, data retrieval may require proprietary software, and some equipment may need to be shipped to the manufacturer to be downloaded. 

  • Collision Mitigation Systems (CMS), such as those manufactured by Bendix and Wabco, installed within commercial trucks can be invaluable sources of crash data. The extent of data available is largely dependent on the specific type of CMS installed within the commercial truck. Some systems are equipped with video capability and, if triggered, may record the critical moments before, during and after an impact. These systems also record vehicle dynamic data, which include but are not limited to speed, time, clutch status, engine RPM, wheel speed, steering wheel input, and acceleration.
  • Navigation/GPS devices are often overlooked but can be invaluable sources of crash data. Everyone is familiar with these devices, but many folks are oblivious to the fact that some of these devices are capable of recording second-by-second crash data, and may come equipped with a dash camera affixed to the back of the device.
  • Newer motorcycles, such as those manufactured by Kawasaki and Honda, are now coming equipped with EDRs.
  • Detroit Assurance is a system that is now standard in 2020 and newer Freightliner Cascadia models. This advanced safety system features active brake assist, adaptive cruise control, and active lane assist, to name a few. Detroit Assurance is an entirely new source for retrieving crash information. The protocol for retrieving data from this system is the same as downloading data from the ECM, but with one important caveat: the data are not accessible absent authorization from Detroit Diesel. Thus, obtaining pre-authorization from Detroit Diesel is a must.
  • Newer model Toyota vehicles are often equipped with advanced lane departure systems with cameras. If an event triggers the system, these cameras may record the critical moments before, during, and after an impact.

While data retrieval is but one step in the investigation process, it is one of the most important. Identifying and securing all available crash data is critically important to the development of liability and damages defenses, and protecting against potential spoliation of evidence claims.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.