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Vehicle black boxes: drivers' friend or foe?

State and federal safety regulators, as well as traffic reconstructionists and insurance companies in Ohio and across the country, call them indispensable. Privacy advocates call them troublesome.

That object of both veneration and fear, respectively, is quite nondescript and, based on sheer size alone, hardly seems worth the attention. What fans and foes alike are referring to is the black box that is fitted neatly beneath the center console in most cars and passenger trucks. The device, also known as an event recorder, is about size of a couple decks of cards.

Notwithstanding its diminutive size, though, it sure packs a lot of information, which is what its advocates point excitedly to when waxing on about its virtues. The recorder essentially just sits in position, quiet and inactive, until seconds before a car accident or other incident it senses is abnormal occurs.

The information it then records is indeed impressive. It notes the speed the vehicle was traveling. It can tell whether the vehicle’s occupants were wearing seat belts. It “knows” whether the brakes were applied leading up to a crash.

That information is “critical,” says NHTSA Administrator David Strickland, helping safety regulators determine “what future steps could be taken to save lives and prevent injuries.”

Critics are concerned, though, with other things the little black box can do, like noting a car’s location around the clock. An event recorder is flatly susceptible of abuse, they say, and there are presently no clear standards governing its use that are uniformly helpful.

“The rabbit hole goes very deep when talking about this stuff,” says one privacy advocate.

It is estimated that more than 95 percent of all vehicles in the country are presently fitted with event recorders.

Source: New York Times, "A black box for car crashes," Jaclyn Trop, July 21, 2013

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