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Big Brother: Should it be in your car?
Feds say 'black boxes' could make cars safer, but more states pass laws to protect drivers' privacy.
By Jeff Plungis / Detroit News Washington Bureau
Who's watching who?
At least two-thirds of new vehicles, including those built by GM and Ford come equipped with event data recorders that can tell tales even after a car has been totalled. Do these 'black boxes' make you feel safer or like you're being spied upon?
WASHINGTON -- A growing number of states are grappling with a new privacy dilemma: what to do about cars that can spy on their owners.
At least two-thirds of new vehicles, including those built by General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., come equipped with event data recorders -- "black boxes" that can tell tales even after a car has been totaled.
The recorders track speed, engine revolutions per minute, braking and seat belt usage and other data in the moments before and after impact. The information can be critical to understanding why accidents occur and finding ways to reduce auto fatalities.
But some see an Orwellian downside to the rapidly advancing technology. As consumers learn more about the black boxes, some are also becoming concerned about what data is being collected and how it can be used by police, their employers, insurance companies and others.
Earlier this year, Michigan police investigators worked with Ford to attempt to download driving data off a Mustang's black box after its driver struck and killed a teenage bicyclist in Plymouth Township.
As concerns grow, state legislatures are passing privacy laws at a dizzying pace.
Last year, California became the first state to pass a law governing how black box data can be used. Arkansas, Nevada, New York, North Dakota and Texas followed. This year, 15 states have considered black box legislation.
Most of the bills seek to ensure that consumers control access to the data, rather than insurance companies, automakers or the government. Pennsylvania is considering a law requiring dealers to disclose which models have black boxes.
The Michigan state legislature has not addressed the issue.
At the same time, consumer groups are pushing for restrictions on black boxes. AAA wants automakers to outline in owners' manuals what data is collected and who could access it.
At the federal level, regulators are moving in another direction. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials want to standardize the data that is collected, so that safety researchers will have new and authoritative databases to track highway safety trends.
"This really could be a breakthrough in safety," said Thomas Kowalick, an event data recorder expert who served on a National Academy of Sciences panel studying the boxes' potential to reduce fatalities.
"It could be the Rosetta stone, a way of figuring out what is really happening in crashes," he said.
Kowalick estimates 40 million vehicles in the United States have black boxes. NHTSA estimates between 65 percent and 90 percent of new cars have black boxes installed.
NHTSA has stopped short of requiring the devices because it recognizes that privacy issues -- who owns the data collected by the car -- have not been settled, said agency spokesman Rae Tyson.
"Our sole intention is to use the data for research purposes," Tyson said. "Data recorders are immensely helpful in crash investigations."
The government already uses black boxes in special in-depth investigations on high priority safety issues. NHTSA only accesses the black box data if the vehicle owner gives permission.
Safety researchers use the crash data to isolate how accidents happen, zeroing in on contributing factors such as speed, the presence of alcohol and seat-belt usage. The information is analyzed and used to weigh new safety regulations to reduce highway fatalities and injuries.
Car crashes have a staggering impact on society, causing about $400 billion in lost economic output each year because of deaths and debilitating injuries. About 43,000 Americans are killed on U.S. highways each year, and there are about 6 million serious injuries.
Some safety groups express concern that state legislators will react to misconceptions about what recorders can do. Federal regulators now have no way to monitor or track an individual driver's activity.
"We just don't have enough data to make good highway safety policy," said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. "It's frustrating."
Black boxes are not really black, and they are not really boxes. They are part of onboard computers that were initially installed on cars to determine when air bags should be deployed. In order to get it right, and not have air bags going off at the wrong time, sensors were installed to monitor a car's speed, acceleration and impact with other objects.
Over time, as more safety devices have been added, including antilock brakes and electronic stability control, more sensors have been added.
The technology is quickly advancing, and new specialized black boxes are being developed. Rental car companies have used satellite technology to ensure renters are not leaving state limits in violation of their contracts.
Parents use them to track their teenagers.
Progressive Insurance Co. set up a pilot program last year offering a 25 percent discount to 5,000 drivers who volunteered to install a recorder that tracked how much, how fast and at what hours they drove.
But with the new technology comes new challenges.
Car owners complain that the computers are being used against them in traffic infractions and in lawsuits.
There isn't much case law about black boxes yet. In 2002, an Illinois court allowed a car's black box to be used as evidence in a case about an alleged air bag defect.
Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, began following the black box issue on a Web site he maintains about electronic privacy, privacilla.org.
Harper said he was surprised by the passion and the number of people writing in about the issue.
"It comes down to control," Harper said. "Typically, people just want to rip these things out of their cars."
But the way cars are configured, the only way to do so would be to disconnect the air bag, which is both illegal and dangerous.
States are doing some necessary spade work that will have to be done if the promise of safety information is going to be realized, said Philip Haseltine, president of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety, an auto industry-funded safety group in Virginia.
"If we don't have assurances about who owns the data and who can access it, then citizens are going to be asking legitimate questions," Haseltine said.