NMA E-Newsletter #171: Black Box Data—A Cautionary Tale

Imagine being in a two-car accident that not only totaled your vehicle, but also made you uninsurable at any sort of reasonable cost because the blame for the collision was placed squarely on your sore shoulders.

Nothing too unusual about that, right? One of our members—he prefers not to be identified; we’ll just call him Dave—faced this scenario almost three years ago and became fed up when his insurance company was set to roll over and play dead in a $250,000 lawsuit filed by the other driver.

What Dave did next was out of the ordinary. His actions provide a useful and cautionary lesson in these times where the ability of the individual to protect personal data is constantly being challenged. Dave actually lives in one of 38 states where the ownership of vehicle black box (event data recorder) data is left undefined. It is hard to prevent the chipping away of individual privacy rights where those rights have never been defined.

Several months after the accident, Dave noticed that his demolished car was one of several in a public auction for used car dealers. It just so happened that he held a dealer license. He bought his wrecked Oldsmobile for $2,000 and then called his insurance company with a proposal: Come and download the data from the black box buried within the wreckage; I am sure you will find information that mitigates my responsibility for the accident.

The insurer was reluctant, but sent two technicians to review the contents of the recorder. Dave didn’t share with us the details of what the data revealed other than to note that the lawsuit was settled for one-tenth of the original asking price. He still is steamed that after spending $2,000 of his own money and saving his insurance company hundreds of thousands of dollars they were about to give away, his thank-you was the privilege of keeping his insurance coverage, albeit at jacked-up premiums.

While the capture of the data in Dave’s case worked in his favor—well, at least to the benefit of his auto insurance company—that might not always be the case. That is why the NMA continues to fight for pro-privacy laws that would define the vehicle owner as having complete control of recorder data. And why computers, cell phones, GPS units, and any other devices that store information of who you are, where you’ve been, and what you have been doing need to be wiped clean before disposal to avoid leaving a personal footprint. (Learn more about black boxes and privacy issues.)

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