Traffic

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this year proposed that black boxes be required in all new cars and light trucks beginning in 2014. (Los Angeles Times / July 31, 2013)

If you bought your car in the last few years, chances are it's equipped with a device that records such data as how fast you are driving and whether you're wearing your seat belt. Chances are you don't know it's there.

Black boxes aren't just for airplanes anymore. They were first installed by automakers as a way to analyze the performance of their cars if that became necessary, but it didn't take long for crash investigators to see them as a source of information about what led to an accident. Was the motorist really traveling within the speed limit, as he claims to have been? When did she begin to apply the brakes? Because of the boxes' value in accident investigations, and in determining recall-worthy safety issues, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration this year proposed that they be required in all new cars and light trucks beginning in 2014. Car companies are willing, and insurance companies support the idea because the information could be used to determine who is at fault in accidents.

But various consumer groups, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for individual privacy rights in the digital world, have their doubts. Right now, the information recorded by the black boxes is very limited. Though they continuously gather information, they also continuously erase it. If a crash occurs or an air bag deploys, the boxes retain only the data from a few seconds before to a few seconds after. But with new advances, the boxes might retain data for longer stretches of time. They might also include new information, such as the car's location or cellphone calls that were made using the car's equipment and how long they lasted. Another problem is that black box data are not considered 100% reliable at this point.

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That shouldn't rule out their use in investigations. But the NHTSA, in its enthusiasm, has neglected to include adequate protection for consumers in its proposal. To start, the buyers of new cars should be informed, clearly and verbally, that the boxes exist and what they record. Right now that information is tucked away in the owner's manual, which isn't exactly bestselling reading material.

Information gathered by the devices should be limited to safety data, and the only information that should be available to investigators and insurance companies should be what's directly related to a crash — meaning the seconds immediately before and after. The boxes should not collect audio or video data; the conversation in the car before an accident should not be recorded. And the information should be available only by warrant or subpoena, unless the owner voluntarily surrenders it. Beyond that, the data gathered about a driver in the car he owns belong to him alone.