April 21, 2005
North Dakota has put some limits on insurance companies making your car testify against you. The legislature decided that insurance companies will be barred from using data from a vehicle's "black box" to set drivers' premiums.

After the vote, insurance industry groups said they believe North Dakota is the first state bar the use of the "black box" information to set rates. Of course, the insurance group says it never uses the data for that purpose anyway.

At least eight other states are considering black-box regulation this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The North Dakota bill also requires cars and trucks, starting with the 2007 model year, to include information about the recorders in their owner's manuals, and says dealers must notify their customers about the presence of a recorder.

The state still allows data to be retrieved without the owner's consent for use in medical research, or for improving motor vehicle safety, as long as the driver's identity is not disclosed. The courts can also order disclosure of the information.

GM Leads the Way

When you think about leadership in the automobile industry, General Motors does not often come to mind but the aging giant does lead the way installing the "black box" technology in automotive products.

GM began installing the devices in vehicles as early as 1996. "Black boxes" are really computer chips used to activate airbags and other safety apparatus but they also store information that can be used to investigate an accident. These chips are common in newer vehicles and are sometime called Event Data Recorders or EDRs.

The chips record a car's speed, braking and steering efficiency, and whether the driver was wearing a seat belt.

Whether or not General Motors has sided with government regulators and investigators who are proponents of "black box" technology is not longer an issue. "Black boxes" are now installed in every GM car in the company line since the 2004 model year. The units are also in a number of Ford Models.

That means that roughly 15 percent of all the vehicles on the road in the U.S. today now carry some sort of "black box" device that could eventually be turned against the driver.

Proponents of the technology include the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). NHTSA has proposed standards for the data collected by "black boxes" and EDRs. The agency emphasized in a recent notice that it is not mandating "black boxes" despite growing pressure.

Highway safety advocates say the data is valuable for studying how accidents happen and how to make roads and cars safer and the NTSB lists the "black box" as one of its "most wanted" measures.

Rental car companies routinely use global positioning systems (GPS) to track renters driving habits, where they go and how fast they drive. GPS will also allow the rental car companies to shut off the engine of a car and lock a renter out.

This is the same technology used by OnStar, which promises to be a guardian angel for car owners who are locked out or report a vehicle stolen.

Parents with teenage drivers are turning to technology in growing numbers to deal with never ending problems of young drivers. A parent can now place a "black box" under the hood or seat of the family sedan and keep up with any teenager.