Sunday, September 19, 2004

Your Car's Black Box is Watching You

Better slow down: Your car's 'black box' is watching you
John Valenti
September 19, 2004

It is about the size of two CD cases stacked on top of each other. If your car has an air bag, there probably is one under your front seat.

It is called an event data recorder and is known as a "black box" - though it is not black.

It is similar to those flight data recorders - also called black boxes and also not black - found in airliners. An event data recorder records far less information, but it can monitor acceleration, deceleration, vehicle speed, engine RPM, brake pedal position and seat belt use. It records most of the data in a continuous five-second loop - and freezes it in the event of an accident.

Then, it also can record so-called "post-impact velocity changes." Crash results.

It has been called the most significant development in vehicle accident investigation in 50 years. Think of its data as the DNA of a car crash.

It is also controversial.

Some say black boxes are Orwellian, straight out of "1984." Think "Big Brother." Some say their implications are far-reaching - that black boxes will not only be used in accident investigations and criminal court trials, but eventually to convict drivers on speeding tickets and even to determine insurance rates.

Some say there could be constitutional issues, since most drivers are unaware of their presence in their cars.

"Is it an invasion of your privacy to have your car ratting on you?" Barbara Bernstein, executive director of the Nassau Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union, asked last week. Manufacturers should have to make drivers aware of their installation, she said - and drivers should have the right to disengage them. "It's like having an unannounced police officer sitting in the back of your car," she said.

Just last week the latest debate over the use of black box information in a trial came to Long Island. It involves the case of two drivers involved in a fatal accident in Muttontown in 2002. One drove a 2002 Chevrolet Corvette, the other a 2002 Mercedes-Benz. Police said both were racing and both crashed into a Jeep - killing Jean Desir, 31, and his fiancee, Sophia Bretous, 23.

The drivers - Kyle Soukup, then 17, of Brookville, and Blake Slade, then 19, of Muttontown - each stand accused of two counts of second-degree murder by depraved indifference to human life. They face 25 years-to-life on each of the counts.

Nassau County prosecutor Michael Walsh argued in court last week that information gathered from the black box in the Corvette - indicating that Soukup was traveling 139 mph in a 55-mph zone just before the crash - should be admitted into evidence. That decision now rests with Court of Claims Justice Alan Honorof. The Mercedes also had a black box. Due to the proprietary rights held by Mercedes-Benz, investigators cannot examine its information.

Fred Klein, chief of the Major Offense Bureau for the Nassau County District Attorney's office, said it should not matter that investigators obtained information from the black box in one car and not the other. The investigation indicated excessive speed was involved in the accident, he said, and witnesses told police the Corvette and the Mercedes were "neck-and- neck" when they struck the Jeep.

"It's another piece of evidence," Klein said.

The attorney representing Slade, John Kase, said: "On the surface, the request seems reasonable. ... But it wasn't recovered from the Mercedes - and I would be curious to see how the information relates to what the Corvette was doing. If it corroborates it. Or not.

"I'd certainly like to be on equal footing," he said. "There should be some sort of standard of operation before information like this is admissible."

Black box information has been used in dozens of court cases across the United States and Canada, including a trial in upstate Wayne County. But, though U.S. courts generally have found black box information admissible in cases involving fatal car accidents, there is no federal standard for what information black boxes record or if that information is accessible to investigators.

Last month the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration took the issue to the public for comment. But it has yet to establish a standard.

Estimates are that only about 15 percent of all cars have black boxes whose information can be accessed by accident investigators, though the sensors are installed in all cars with air bags. The National Transportation Safety Board wants the devices installed on all trucks and motor coaches. But that has not happened, either.

"There should be a federal standard for their installation, for what information they gather and for notification to vehicle owners - like a sticker or a notice in their owner's manuals - that these devices are installed in their cars," AAA Automobile Club of New York spokesman Robert Sinclair said. "Because, right now, the potential for their misuse is no doubt present."

A recent study by the Virginia Commonwealth University Transportation Safety Training Center found that event data recorders are "reliable" and could be a vital tool in both accident investigation and reconstruction and in court cases. But while one of the team members, Virginia Senior State Trooper Rick Dowsett, a native of East Meadow, said black box information should be used to verify accident investigation results - not in lieu of those investigations - he said its information should be admissible.

"That box," Dowsett said, "isn't giving you information about something you didn't do before God and everybody else out there on the road. Maybe if drivers knew what they did was going to be recorded, they would drive a little better."

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