My Big Brother, the car

August 09, 2004

ARE YOU READY for the day when your own car might be called to testify against you?

If not, you're in trouble. The time is at hand -- thanks to the so-called black boxes of the automobile world, event data recorders or EDRs. The majority of new cars are equipped with these modules. They are, essentially, computer chips that record a vehicle performance during, and up to 90 seconds prior to, a crash.

An outgrowth of air bag technology dating to the 1970s, EDRs seem innocent enough. Manufacturers started installing them years ago to collect safety data -- and to help them design safer cars. They can reveal such things as how fast a vehicle was moving, when brakes might have been engaged, and whether the driver was wearing a safety belt. It's a dream come true for accident investigators who often rely on less-dependable data such as skid marks on the road and other forensic evidence to judge the circumstances of a crash.

Currently, 30 million cars and other light vehicles are equipped with EDRs. They cost manufacturers as little as a few dollars to install. Most car owners don't know about them; they aren't touted in sales literature.

But the devices' impact could soon get much bigger. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has recently proposed standardizing EDRs. That would make them record the same information (it varies widely now) and be more crash-resistant, and make it easier for investigators to retrieve information from them. The new rules no doubt would make EDR data more widely available -- to police, to insurance companies, and to potential litigants in court. That raises an important question: Who owns the information?

Privacy is a difficult issue. Car manufacturers say the data are the sole property of the vehicle's owner, and anyone else -- accident investigators included -- has to get the owner's permission to view it. But it isn't hard to imagine circumstances when the owner's rights may not be so clear. A driver could be compelled to reveal the information in a lawsuit, or as a condition of his insurance coverage.

What happens if a recorder shows a driver was speeding or not wearing a seat belt? Even if it wasn't relevant to an accident, the information might be used to refuse a claim, raise rates or cancel a policy. Even ownership rights can be uncertain. When a vehicle is badly damaged, an insurance company usually takes title to the wreck. The company would then have every right to examine the EDR.

The traffic safety administration has never mandated EDRs in new cars, in part because of these thorny issues. But the time has come for the federal government to address them. States are already engaged in the debate. California law, for instance, requires that the presence of an EDR be disclosed to a car buyer and that anyone who wants to download its data must get the owner's written permission. Still, it would be better for President Bush and Congress to step in and propose a national standard. This kind of accident data is too valuable -- and the potential problems it might cause too great -- to be governed by a hodgepodge of regulations.

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