NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


August 19, 2004

If you drive a late-model car, it probably has a "black box" the size of a cigarette pack that's monitoring your speed, braking, seat-belt use, steering and more. Forty million vehicles have them, including two-thirds of all 2004 cars. Yet few motorists have any idea the "event data recorders" are there.

Like the devices or not, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which investigates accident causes, wants them in every new vehicle, something the agency can't order by itself. Privacy advocates raise these concerns:

  • Can insurers deny claims or raise a driver's premiums based on information the recorders access? Can police retrieve the device and use it in court? Can lawyers demand access to it in order to sue you?
  • Are car buyers being informed? California is the only state so far to require that owners' manuals notify motorists of a recorder's presence. The law also requires an owner's permission in most cases before authorities can gain access to the data.

Black boxes have been showing up more frequently in prosecutions and civil lawsuits, but rules vary widely.

  • In a fatal Florida crash, a truck driver was cleared of reckless driving when his recorder showed he was driving 60 mph instead of 90 mph, as a witness claimed.
  • In Illinois, a recorder proved a hearse driver was speeding when he struck a police car, seriously injuring an officer.

With measures to protect privacy and inform car owners, the recorders might be used effectively to improve safety and even benefit good drivers. One insurer is testing a plan to provide discounts to motorists who voluntarily give it access to the devices. Source: Editorial, "Big Brother on Board?" USA Today, August 16, 2004.

For USA Today text


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