Vehicle black boxes good if used properly
If you own a newer vehicle, odds are you're driving around with an unknown bit of technology under the hood.
According to recent media reports, nearly 92 percent of new vehicles on the road today have event data recorders — more commonly known as a “black box” — on board.
The recorders are designed to record information as the car is driven — including whether or not seatbelts are used, or if the driver hit the gas pedal or the brake in a specific moment, very similar in concept to the units required on airplanes.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is considering requiring the boxes on all future vehicles, a move the White House supports.
The boxes do provide information that can be quite useful, both for automotive experts and law enforcement officials.
Should the vehicle be in a collision where it's difficult to figure out who the responsible party is, the box would yield pertinent information that could help investigators.
The flaw in the concept comes from a variable that can't be recorded, and that's simple human behavior.
The box wouldn't know if the driver was distracted by a cell phone, eating a snack or tending to a child in the backseat — actions that could lead to an accident.
There are also privacy issues that need to be resolved. The boxes are already in the majority of new vehicles in the United States, something most consumers are likely unaware of. It has a feeling of “Big Brother” that may make many drivers uncomfortable.
Information from the black boxes has already been used in the United States to convict drivers, including a case in which then-New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine was injured. The box revealed that the governor's driver was going 91 miles an hour in a 60 mph zone in the moments leading up to the crash.
The boxes do contain useful information which, if used properly, can help clarify the specifics of an accident. The gray area that needs to be resolved is how often the information is accessed, by whom and when.
One logical approach is that the information on the box belongs to the vehicle's owner, who must give permission for its release — except in incidents involving potential criminal behavior, such as an accident. The courts would decide if the information should be available and who gets it.
That's the approach used in some states already, which is reasonable and follows existing laws that require law enforcement to seek judicial permission to violate a person's assumed right of privacy, such as searching their home. Such a law for the automotive boxes should satisfy the Constitution's mandate for privacy protection under the 4th Amendment, which guards against unreasonable search and seizure.
Once the privacy issues are resolved and laws are in place to protect vehicle owners, the black boxes seem like a good idea, one more step in prosecuting — or protecting — those on our roadways.