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New black-box standards advance auto safety

Consumer Reports News: August 21, 2012 11:38 AM

Popularly known as "black boxes," event data recorders (EDRs) have helped investigators solve the mysteries of airplane crashes for decades. But despite their presence in cars since the mid 1990s, they haven't been as helpful on the road, because different automakers collect different data and use different systems to retrieve it. Now that's about to change, following a ruling by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) due to take effect October 1, 2012.

The ruling will standardize the data collected by the black boxes and how it can be retrieved. The issue came to light during the Toyota unintended acceleration crisis when Congressional hearings revealed that the company had only one computer in the United States that could read data from these recorders.

The NHTSA ruling does not mandate EDRs in vehicles, but it paves the way to making them mandatory in a future ruling. It leaves the question of who owns the data up to states for now, or up to a future ruling to clarify. Most cars, however, already have EDRs of some sort. The significance of this measure is that the ruling specifies what data such devices should collect, as well as provide guidelines for how it can be accessed. (Learn more in "Black Box 101: The basics of Event Data Recorders.")

The data must include:

  • The crash force in forward and side directions

  • The duration of the crash event

  • Indicated vehicle speed

  • Accelerator position

  • Engine rpm

  • Brake application and anti-lock brake activation

  • Steering wheel angle

  • Stability control engagement

  • Vehicle roll angle, in case of a roll over

  • Number of times the vehicle has been started

  • Driver and front-passenger seatbelt engagement, and pretensioner or force-limiter engagement

  • Air bag deployment, speed, and faults for all air bags

  • Front seat positions

  • Occupant size

  • Number of crashes (one or more impacts during the final crash event)

Privacy experts have expressed concern over the release of such data, which is often used in court cases to prove fault in an accident. States have different laws governing the release of the data.

Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, believes black-box data should be standardized, so accident investigators can use it to improve the safety of future vehicles and crashes. We've spoken to trauma centers who say that the data, in individual cases, would be invaluable in diagnosing injuries of the accident victims.

We also believe, however, that the owners of the cars should own the data, and we have concerns over the privacy implications of its use.

Overall, the NHTSA ruling represents a step forward in improving auto safety, one inline with our recommendations for improving U.S. automotive safety.

Eric Evarts


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