Remember every single thing you do in your car can and will be monitored by the police. Well at least when you are involved in an accident.
It's kind of like your phone, where the police can get a record of every call you made, each and every key you pressed, and in the case of cell phones, each and every cell phone tower that your phone talked to, which give the police your location and time.
Automotive 'black boxes' raise privacy issues
By G. Chambers Williams III, The Tennessean
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- If you're involved in a traffic accident with no witnesses except you and the other driver, it's just your word against his, right?
Your own car just might tattle on you if you're at fault.
So-called event data recorders that function much like the "black boxes" on airplanes, and which are now installed on virtually all new vehicles, can give investigators incriminating details about your driving behavior in the final seconds before a crash.
Some motorists -- fearful of what they see as an invasion of privacy -- aren't too happy about that.
"I didn't think my '98 Saturn was new enough to have the data recorder, but apparently it does, and I think it should be up to me to decide how and when I share that information with someone else," said Bob McClellan Jr., 35, of Antioch.
"If I were given the opportunity to agree to have this on the vehicle when I buy it, then that probably would be OK," McClellan said. "But if I own the car, it's my business what's on the recorder, and no one should be able to access it unless I say so."
Details that can be scrutinized include how fast the vehicle was going, as well as whether the brakes or accelerator were being pressed, which way the car was being steered, and -- yes -- even whether the occupants were wearing their seatbelts. The data is always being recorded, but it's only saved to the device's memory if an air bag deploys, automakers say.
Critics argue that the system is a snoop and unfair to consumers.
"It's in the cars, it can't be turned off, and the information is available to anyone with a court order," said Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, a group that advocates on behalf of drivers in instances of unfair traffic enforcement.
"Our members ask whether these devices can be disabled, but they can't, because they are integral to the computer systems that control modern cars," Biller said.
Laws have been implemented in 13 states to limit access to the information in the recorders, but there are no such regulations on the books in Tennessee and many other states to prevent someone from uploading the data without permission.
Getting that data is easier on some vehicles than others, but a Nashville company, VCE Inc., has been at the forefront of using information from the recorders to reconstruct traffic accidents since the introduction of the devices in the mid-1990s.
"We have been involved from the start and were among the first ones to begin downloading the data from these recorders for the accident reconstructions we do for attorneys and insurance companies," VCI Vice President Todd Hutchison said.
"We typically get permission from the owner of the vehicle, but that's not necessarily who owned it at the time of the accident," he pointed out. "If the insurance company has bought the salvaged vehicle, they can give us permission."
Data easy to collect(AT)
Collecting the data is simple. VCE investigators merely connect to the vehicle's diagnostic system using a cord that attaches to a laptop computer, and special software then reads the data, Hutchison said.
Both Metro police and the Tennessee Highway Patrol have the equipment to capture the information after an accident, he said.
It doesn't always take a wired connection to access the data. Beginning with the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, General Motors will be able to upload the information from the recorders wirelessly through the OnStar system included on most of the automaker's vehicles.
And Biller said his organization has heard of possible transponder-style readers that could upload the data just by coming close to a vehicle that is equipped with special technology similar to that used by automated toll-collection systems.
"It's a valuable tool for insurance companies," said Buddy Oakes, a Columbia-based insurance claims adjuster. "If there is no way to tell right away what happened in an accident, sometimes we request permission from the vehicle owner or through the court to extract the data, which gives us the last 15 seconds of activity before the impact.
"It shows how fast the car was going, how hard it was being braked, what evasive moves were made. We've had people say they were sitting still at a stoplight and got hit, when the data recorder shows they were doing 30 mph through the intersection."
Data used to calculate rates
Some insurance companies also are using the data to help rate customers' driving habits to determine how much their premiums should be, but that would be only with the customers' cooperation, Oakes said.
As for the expectation of privacy, "that pretty much went out the door for most things a long time ago," he said. "I don't know that there's privacy on anything anymore. Every phone call you make can be tracked, and just about anything that becomes a legal matter becomes public information."
Automakers defend the development and use of the data recorders as a great research tool to help make vehicles safer.
"For us, the whole purpose was safety research," said GM safety spokeswoman Sharon Basel.
The devices were first installed in conjunction with the introduction of air bags in cars nearly two decades ago to show what forces were involved in activating the bags and to help automakers improve them, automakers say.
"We have them in all of our vehicles, and have had since the mid-'90s," Basel said.
Nissan, Ford, Toyota and most other automakers have been using the technology in their new vehicles since at least the mid-2000s.
There are no requirements for them to put the devices in cars, but beginning with the 2011 model year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires that automakers state in the vehicle owner's manual whether a recorder is installed and where it is located. Locations vary by make, model and year.
"We feel that, overall, it is a benefit for auto safety, but we also go to great lengths to protect our customers' privacy," said Ford Motor Co. spokesman Wes Sherwood. "If anyone wants access to the data, they will need the owner's consent or the proper legal authority to do so. But the devices are included on all Ford vehicles now, and we have a supplier that provides a tool for reading the information. It's widely available to law enforcement or anyone else with the authority to download the data."
Dealership service departments can download the data from the recorders, which also store reports about vehicle malfunctions to help pinpoint maintenance problems, said Nelson Andrews, general manager of Nelson Cadillac and Land Rover Nashville. He said the devices go "a long way toward helping us fix" whatever is wrong.
"There's really nothing people can do about it," Andrews adds. "But my cellphone collects more data than these devices do."
Nissan is among automakers that provide dealers with software to collect and analyze data from the recorders, said spokesman Steve Yaeger.
"We have event data recorders on all of our vehicles, and we have software called Consult that can be used by qualified people to read that data," Yaeger said. "All of our dealers have it. But it's protected by a code, and is not available to just everybody."
"If it's requested by law enforcement or court order, though, we can provide the information for that."