Does your vehicle have an ' event data recorder' on board?

Tuesday, January 4th 2005, 2:18 pm
By: News On 6

Your car is most likely recording things about your driving and that information can be used against you if you have a traffic accident.

Most people don't know their car has a black box. They are similar to ones in airplanes, although they don't record voices, but they do record plenty of other things that happen before a crash.

News on 6 reporter Lori Fullbright has been investigating.

Even though it's silver, it's called a black box or airbag sensor or event data recorder. Its main job is safety, it operates the airbags, but it also records information and because of that, a Glenpool teenager could be charged with negligent homicide. It'll be the first time anyone's been charged in Tulsa County based on a black box, but you can bet, it won't be the last.

Last year, a 19 year old man took his sister's 2002 Trans-Am out for a test drive the day after she bought it. He lost control and hit two utility poles; the crash killed his passenger, who was also 19. The driver had no idea the car would become a witness against him. Tulsa Police removed the black box from the wreckage and it had quite a story to tell.

The Trans Am's computer read-out says five seconds before he hit the first pole, the driver was going 121 miles an hour, the throttle was at 100% and the RPM's at 5504. At four seconds before impact, he took his foot off the gas and his speed dropped to 119. At three seconds, he hit the brakes and slowed to 108. At two seconds, he was down to 102 and one second later, just before he hit the first pole, he was going 87 miles an hour. Police sent that information to the DA, for a negligent homicide charge.

The National Transportation Safety Board wants black boxes in all vehicles. And another crash is one of the reasons why. An 86 year old man killed 10 people and injured 63 when he plowed into a farmer's market in California in 2003. Some witnesses said he was braking, others said he was accelerating.

Investigators still don't know for sure and that's when they said wanted black boxes in all vehicles sold in the US, which will happen by 2009. But 10-million vehicles already have them and some people wonder how they got installed with so few people knowing about it.

Car makers say the recorders give them real-world data they can't get in a lab and that helps them make safer cars. Adam Goins, Riverside Chevrolet Service Mgr: "Accidents are what they are, they're accidents and weird things happen and the data that comes out of this box helps manufacturers make a safer product."

The box records information as you're driving. If you slam on your brakes or crash, it decides in milliseconds which seatbelt to cinch up or which airbag to deploy, which is a great safety feature, it also starts retaining the information it recorded. Tulsa Police Sgt Rick Bondy: "It keeps a rolling track, five seconds worth of data, on how fast you're going, if your foot is on the gas or the brake, engine speed, who's wearing a seatbelt, who's in the front seat."

Many people don't like the idea of being spied on without their consent or knowledge, especially since there are no guidelines about who can get this information or how they can use it. Attorney Wayne Copeland: "We're no longer a country that's as free as it once was. We're more of a police state every day." Others argue something must be done about the 6,000 crashes in this country every day and their enormous financial and physical cost.

An Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper showed us how to hook up to a black box in a wrecked car and read the data. OHP trooper Ron Singleton: "The driver was buckled; the air bag was on the passenger side."

Prosecutors say when it comes to finding the truth, a computer is more reliable than contradicting witnesses and since the black box has no personal bias, it can prove a person's innocence as well as guilt. Tulsa County First Assistant DA Doug Drummond: "Something where a life has been lost or it's serious, if there's a piece of evidence out there that will help you find the truth, which would surely outweigh anyone's privacy in my opinion."

Some worry about the uses of this technology not even conceived of yet, like recording months of data that allows dealers to refuse warranty work or insurance companies, to deny coverage or lawyers to file lawsuits. This debate of safety versus privacy is just beginning and will no doubt result in rules about how much these boxes record, who can legally get the information and how it can be used.

To see if you car has a black box, check out this web site.