The Automobile Black Box

You may remember that, about a decade ago, then New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine was badly injured in a car accident. Thanks to an event data recorder—aka an automobile black box —it was found that the SUV he was riding in had been speeding, going about 91 miles per hour five seconds before the collision.

We have been hearing more about the black box since, a technology that is here to stay. Since Sept. 1, 2014, every new vehicle has had to have one. 96% of new cars sold in the United States now come with a black box.

So, just what is this ubiquitous new gadget? It’s a device that records information related to accidents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) collects this information in order to reconstruct the scenes of accidents.

The automobile black box can determine whether a person exceeded the speed limit or drove too fast in inclement conditions; for instance, in a snow storm. Analysts ascertain the momentum, energy, and crush damage; they then compare their speed estimates to the number from the black box. Besides speed, the black box can record a variety of other data: whether the brakes were applied, the steering angle, whether seat belt circuits were buckled or unbuckled, and more. (The tool records information only for 20 seconds around the crash.)

There are relatively rare cases when no data can be recovered. For example, if there is a loss of electrical power early in an accident, the power reserve in the restraint system control module capacitors might be all used up by the air bags; as result, there won’t be sufficient power to write data to the electrically erasable programmable read-only memory.

Many drivers are not aware that their automobile has a black box, though every owner’s manual says so. It is vital, in any case, that attorneys request the owner to preserve the black box data.

The NHTSA and law enforcement are able to get the data either directly or through specialized third parties such as an accident reconstruction service. Insurance companies and law firms can also use third parties to get data for accident investigations or for court cases.

Though there has been controversy about the use of black boxes as evidence in court cases, and for insurance claims against the driver of a crashed vehicle, the use of black box data in both civil and criminal court cases is increasing, the device becoming more and more accepted as a source of accurate empirical evidence.

Some states have passed regulations concerning who may get the data with and without the car owner’s permission. There is a useful list of the states and their respective rules available online at the website of the National Conference of State Legislatures. You should know, however, that nobody can get ahold of your data unless he has your permission or a court order, and insurance companies can’t use the data to affect your rates unless you elect to be part of such a program.  Click here for more information on multi-vehicle accident reconstruction in car accident lawsuits.


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