Black Boxes in Cars Help Determine Cause of Kentucky Car Accidents, But Do They Infringe on Privacy?

December 7, 2012

257706_black_box_series.jpgMost of us are familiar with the "black boxes" on airplanes. Unlike the photo attached here, the black boxes on planes are small data recording devices. When a plane crashes or has to make an emergency landing, the black box on board is used to determine what went wrong by linking it to a computer and downloading its data. This is especially helpful if there are no witnesses or survivors to interview, which unfortunately happens frequently in plane crashes.

But how many of us realize that these black boxes are in many of the cars we drive? Officially called "event data recorders," these devices record dozens of different data, from the speed of the car to whether or not the driver or passengers were wearing seatbelts. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is supposed to be proposing a new regulation that would require the black boxes to be installed on all new vehicles.

NTSB has been trying to enact this rule unsuccessfully for almost a decade because people fear the black boxes will infringe on their privacy. Likening the recorders to "Big Brother," one Representative said, "Privacy is a big concern for many across America."

No matter what your beliefs are regarding the privacy issue, it is hard to deny the usefulness of having a large amount of pre-accident data available when determining what caused a car crash. In an effort to avoid fault, many drivers will stretch the truth or outright lie about how fast they were going or whether they attempted to stop or not, or they may try to place the blame on a malfunction of the car. Such was the case in a Louisville, Kentucky car crash that happened in August 2009. A man was test-driving a car at a high rate of speed when he crashed into another car and killed two people. He claimed that he was only going 60 mph before the crash, but the black box had recorded a pre-crash speed of 102 mph, more than twice the posted speed limit of 45 mph. He was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter and is currently serving a five-year sentence.

These black boxes are also used by auto manufacturers to ensure and improve on the safety of the cars and trucks they sell. Many started installing the black boxes when airbags became mandatory in vehicles. While the airbag data was used in part to protect them from liability in some cases, it also enabled manufacturers to determine how to make the airbags safer. When Toyota owners started reporting that their cars were accelerating on their own in 2009-2010, black box data showed that the culprits were most likely the gas pedals themselves or the floor mats, which could get caught under the pedals.

Privacy is important, but so is safety. It will be interesting to see whether or not the regulation requiring black boxes is put in place, and what, if any, limits are placed on them. If you are injured in an accident, a black box may provide the evidence you need to be compensated for your injuries. An experienced Kentucky car accident attorney will know how to obtain this information and how it can be used in any legal action you wish to take.


Black boxes in cars raise privacy concerns; Associated Press; Joan Lowy; December 7, 2012