After a 9 year old boy was killed in a crash with a car last month, many commenters wondered if the driver was speeding, and some expressed a wish that cars be equipped with black boxes.
The thing is that many cars are equipped with a "black box" and it's likely the one in this crash, an Infiniti Q56, was as well.
Automotive "black boxes" are now built into more than 90 percent of new cars, and the government is considering making them mandatory.
And that's up to 96% in 2013.
In cars, they're usually called Electronic Data Recorders (EDR) or sometimes the Airbag Control Module,
EDRs are part of a car's safety system, which has to make split-second decisions, for example, whether to pull seat belts tighter or inflate the airbags. And engineers like to see data from real-world crashes to track how those systems are working. So the EDRs save the crash data, and as safety systems grow more complex, the recorders keep saving more information.
They weren't designed for investigative purposes but rather for safety. However, in at least one recent bicycle fatality similar data were used to prosecute a driver.
Such data would seem to be very useful to the public. It could help car and road designers make both safer, and it could help to prosecute drivers whose negligence leads to a death or injury of another. And for those reasons, the "National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed making the devices mandatory on all new cars, starting next year." But Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass wants to let drivers opt out of using them.
"I would argue that this is a device that the average person should be able to turn off if they so desire," he says.
The reason appears to be privacy concerns.
"Consumers should have control over the information collected by event data recorders in vehicles that they own and they should have the option of disabling the device if they choose to do so. This is a basic issue of privacy," stated Congressman Mike Capuano.
I have to disagree, because while the EFF and Capuno have some valid concerns (about who can access the data, what it records and who owns it), those are addressed by current regulations.
In keeping with NHTSA's current policies on EDR data, the EDR data would be treated by NHTSA as the property of the vehicle owner and would not be used or accessed by the agency without owner consent.
EDRs do not collect any personal identifying information or record conversations and do not run continuously
So, drivers already have the right to "opt out", just after the crash - unless they're a suspect in a criminal investigation. Codify the current regulations capping the data types and quantity and defining who owns it and who can access it into law if there are concerns about the regulations being changed, but don't let drivers turn the devices off.
If one is worried that this is a privacy violation, consider that - with a warrant - we can make drivers submit to a blood test. You can't tell me that downloading data off their car's computer is more invasive.
Govtrack gives the law, co-sponsored by western Virginia's Morgan Griffith, a low chance of passing (4%), so I guess for once gridlock is working. But for the sake of making roads safer, and prosecuting unsafe drivers, we need to make the installation and use of these devices mandatory, while putting in reasonable privacy protections for drivers.