Black Box In Your Car: Safety Device Or Snitch?
Consumers Rarely Told About Monitoring Device
POSTED: 8:51 a.m. CDT July 11, 2003
UPDATED: 8:56 a.m. CDT July 11, 2003
CHICAGO -- There's a good chance there is a black box in your car if it was made within the past several years, Target 5's Lisa Parker reported. "And it landed there with very little discussion about privacy," Parker said. The device is designed to help police determine who's at fault in an accident, Parker said, and to help prosecutors go after negligent drivers. At crash scenes, important questions about what happened and how it happened often go unanswered, Parker said.
"But that may be about to change," Parker said. "Tucked under
car seats and mounted in dashboards of millions of cars on the road
today is a little-known device tracking a car's every move."
This "added extra" is sparking some controversy, with
Originally installed by automakers to monitor air bag
activity, today's "black box" can do much more. Some models track
how fast a motorist is driving, when a driver hits the brakes, and
if a driver is wearing a seat belt. Certain models only activate
right before a crash. Others monitor conditions constantly but
rerecord information every five seconds.
"It doesn't tell the whole story," Toni DiViesti, of Dynamic
Safety, said. "It's just a piece of the puzzle."
Parker said the black box was not designed with police or
attorneys in mind; carmakers made them to gather crash information
and improve vehicle safety.
"The data that can be provided through event data recorders
can be very very helpful in making sure that the systems are working
as intended," said Phil Haseltine, of the Automotive Coalition for
Black boxes are not new to automomakers, Parker said. General
Motors has been installing the devices for years -- as early as
1994. Ford, Toyota and Honda also use them.
"But consumers are just now getting wind of the devices-- and
here's the sticky part," Parker said. "Data from black boxes is
making its way into court cases across the country. And almost
invariably, the information recorded is used against the driver -- a
driver who, in many cases, had no idea the box was even in the car."
Harold Krent, of Kent-Chicago Law School, told Parker
motorists should be able to choose whether or not they want the
black boxes in their cars.
"I don't think consumers have any idea that their actions in
their cars are being recorded," Krent said. "I mean this is not
something that is disclosed readily to an individual when purchasing
a car ... Because of distrust, because of fear of external
monitoring, (someone) might decide not to have it. And I think
that's critical when it comes to consumer choice and for protection
of consumer privacy."
Count Adrianne Newman among those consumers who were peeved
to find out her car is recording her every move.
"It's an invasion of privacy," according to Newman. "What you
do in your own car, you think, is private. To be told that you're
being recorded -- it's an invasion of privacy."
Chuck Tiedje, an Arlington Heights police officer who almost
died when a hearse slammed into his squad car, disagreed with Newman
and called the devices "little boxes of truth."
"The black box is a beautiful thing because it peels away all
human emotion and gives you cold hard facts: 'This is what
happened,'" Tiedje told Parker.
Tiedje said he was in a coma for 26 days after the hearse
struck his squad car. Nearly 20 surgeries and two years later, he
said he has no memory of the accident -- but the black box in the
hearse that hit him does have a memory.
"It showed in the five seconds prior to impact, the hearse
accelerated from 61 to 63 mph in a 45-mph zone."
While doctors saved his life, Tiedje said, the black box
preserved his future. Its "eyewitness account" led to a $10 million
settlement of his case.
"This isn't Big Brother looking over your shoulder," Tiedje
said. "This is something to help you and you if don't have anything
to hide, you don't have anything to worry about."
Parker said consumers do not have control over the boxes and
cannot disable them if they're installed in their cars.
"Safety experts urge you not to touch the device because it
is linked to the air bag system and could compromise your safety,"
Parker said. "But police do need a search warrant before they can
get their hands on the box."
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