PhotoComing soon to a car near you -- event data recorders, or "black boxes." The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has refused to allow more time for arguments by privacy advocates, allowing new data standards to become effective Sept. 1, 2012.

The event data recorders (EDR) collect and store vehicle operation information before, during, and after a crash, including vehicle location, speed, seat belt use and number of vehicle occupants.

The new government regulations don't require automakers to install the black boxes but rather set standards that must be followed if the devices are installed by the manufacturer or a third party. In fact, many cars already have EDRs but there is no common standard, something NHTSA has been trying to remedy since 1997.

Safety advocates have also been pressing for installation of the recorders for a long time, saying they would yield important data that could be used to make cars safer, spotlight driver errors and yield information about highway design.

But privacy advocates fear the data will be used for more nefarious purposes. It's not much of a stretch to imagine police and personal injury lawyers using data from the boxes to prosecute drivers involving in accidents.


Whose data?

Still largely unresolved is the question of who should own – and have access to – the data gathered by the devices.

  • The automakers say the data should be theirs, so that they can identify and correct shortcomings in the design and durability of their vehicles.
  • Safety regulators say they should have unfettered access to the data so that they can spot those same shortcomings and order recalls.
  • Law enforcement and insurance companies say they should have access to the data so they can determine not only what caused an accident but who, if anyone, was at fault.
  • Insurance companies would also dearly love to monitor the boxes in realtime, not just after accidents. That way, they could raise premiums for drivers who frequently sped, made emergency stops and engaged in other behavior that might raise the risk of an accident.
  • Personal injury and product liability lawyers say they should have access to the data so they can sue manufacturers, drivers and anyone else implicated by the EDR's data.

Toyota did little to build public support for manufacturers when it reportedly used EDR data from 2,000 cars involved in unintended acceleration incidents. The company then proclaimed proudly that in none of the cases was the car's electronic throttle found to be at fault.

Privacy organizations, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) strongly contend that the data should belong to the operator of the vehicle. 

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