Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 9, 2012

Ruling on car black boxes brings up privacy concerns

Data recorders may be included in new cars, light trucks


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---- — WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal regulators are proposing automakers install event data recorders — better known as "black boxes" — in most new cars and trucks despite privacy concerns.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposal announced Friday would apply to passenger vehicles sold after Sept. 1, 2014, and weighing less than 8,500 pounds.

The agency is behind the curve. Automakers have been tucking the devices into cars for years. It automatically records the actions of drivers and the responses of their vehicles in a continuous information loop.

The idea is to gather information that can help investigators determine the cause of accidents and lead to safer vehicles. But privacy advocates say government regulators and automakers are spreading an intrusive technology without first putting in place policies to prevent misuse of the information collected.

Many motorists don't know it, but it's likely that every time they get behind the wheel, there's a snitch along for the ride.

When a car is involved in a crash or when its airbags deploy, inputs from the vehicle's sensors during the 5 to 10 seconds before impact are automatically preserved. That's usually enough to record things like how fast the car was traveling and whether the driver applied the brake, was steering erratically or had a seat belt on.

The idea is to gather information that can help investigators determine the cause of accidents and lead to safer vehicles. But privacy advocates say government regulators and automakers are spreading an intrusive technology without first putting in place policies to prevent misuse of the information collected.

Data collected by the recorders is increasingly showing up in lawsuits, criminal cases and high-profile accidents. Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray initially said that he wasn't speeding and that he was wearing his seat belt when he crashed a government-owned car last year. But the Ford Crown Victoria's data recorder told a different story: It showed the car was traveling more than 100 mph and Murray wasn't belted in.