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Black Boxes: Is Big Brother Watching You Drive?

The following is a transcript of Todd Dykes' report shown exactly the way it appeared on WLWT Eyewitness News 5 at 11 p.m. on Feb. 24, 2003.

Anchor: When it comes to keeping you safe on the road, many carmakers rely on information from actual collisions. In fact, when airbags deploy, there's a device that can help carmakers find out what may have happened, which helps them design safer vehicles. But more and more, police agencies are interested in so-called black boxes, raising questions about just who's watching you when you're on the road. Todd Dykes has more in this Eyewitness Extra.

Dykes: From her Edgewood driveway, Amy Kelley has no idea her SUV could spy on her.

Jim Mueller, Butler County sheriff's deputy: These devices have been known as the black box.

Kelley: I haven't heard of that at all.

Dykes: It's no surprise that Amy has never heard of the so-called black box inside in her newer Chevy Suburban.

Mueller: The technology is very new. In fact, there's probably only about 10 percent or less of vehicles on the road that we can actually access these modules and get any information out of.

Dykes: A technical piece of equipment called either an EDR, for event data recorder, or SDM, for sensing diagnostic module.

Mueller: Typically, they're under the passenger seat of the vehicle or up under the dashboard.

Dykes: It's a device used to control air bags in certain cars in the event of a crash. Now, a growing number of police accident deconstructionists can use a decoding device to retrieve a black box's information, information that typically includes what happened during the five seconds before a crash.

Mueller: It generally records the speed, whether or not the seat belts were buckled...

Dykes: Deputy Jim Mueller works for the Butler County Sheriff's Department, one of the few agencies in the Tri-State using the devices to help with crash investigations.

Mueller: The data it gives us is just a portion of what actually occurred.

Dykes: But while helpful in certain cases, a car's black box doesn't provide unlimited data. And then there are the questions many drivers are asking: Does the device mean big brother is watching a driver's every move? And could it help or hurt a motorist in a court of law?

Kelley: It's a little bit big brother-ish, but at the same time it gives me a little feeling of safety because I feel like I'm a safe driver and if something were to happen that maybe I'd want to know that information.

Sandra Guile, AAA Cincinnati: As long as the device is not being used to single out blame on an individual, but as part of a thorough investigation, I think we would probably support that.

Dykes: AAA's Sandra Guile says at this point, the black boxes seem to have a bright future.

Guile: From the AAA perspective, we can definitely see it as being a positive addition to the manufacturers and to the vehicles out on the road, only because it'll help us understand what causes crashes.

Dykes: Currently, the devices are in most GM cars made since the mid-1990's, while Ford and other automakers use slightly different versions, posing a real challenge to investigators who know many older cars don't have black boxes, even though they cause accidents just like their newer counterparts.

Anchor: Black boxes in cars have been used in court cases across the U.S. and in Ohio. Typically, the data is part of evidence collected by police at the scene of a crash. Of course, some people worry that insurance companies and lawyers might try to gain access to the black boxes, but that doesn't seem to be an issue at this point.





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