NMA Black Boxes Fact Sheet ( PDF )
Free to download, print & distribute.

For years now, without any knowledge on the part of most motorists, several car manufacturers have been installing Electronic Data Recorders (EDRs), popularly known as black boxes, in the vehicles they produce.

There are more than 30 million cars and trucks on the road equipped with these devices, and that number is rising exponentially. The endorsement of this controversial technology by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will only hasten its growth.

When questions arise regarding the use of black boxes, so-called experts at the NTSB respond with vagaries. In part, this is because of the difference between various types of EDRs. Put simply, black boxes are not created equal. All of these devices record data at the time of an accident; However, they vary greatly as to precisely what information is recorded, the duration of data collection, and how accessible their findings are.

To address these disparities, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) called for the standardization of EDRs, and issued guidelines requiring all black boxes to record the specific pieces of information in an easily downloadable format. NHTSA safety engineer, John Hinch, claims that the regulations were made solely to facilitate crash research.

Hinch, and others at both NHTSA and the NTSB, are quick to downplay the fact that insurers and lawyers are increasingly using EDR data to determine fault in accidents.

Despite their best efforts to mollify public concern, it’s clear that this potential use of black boxes cannot be overlooked. Motorists have already had their insurance claims denied or even been charged with crimes based on the data collected by these devices.

Black boxes may be growing in prevalence, but this only increases the need for their regulation.

Laws stipulating that vehicle owners also own the data being collected by black boxes are necessary. The motorist, not his or her insurance company or the authorities, should have the sole right to release this information.

In addition, for motorists to truly be in charge of this data, auto dealerships must be required to tell consumers that such a device is in their vehicle and they must be willing to help owners who want to have their black boxes disabled. NHTSA does call for disclosure of the device in every owner’s manual, but more widespread publicity is needed because few people consult the manual.

Carmakers expressed concerns that the disclosure requirements hinder the installation of more black boxes because of possible negative reactions by customers.

In other words, if the public were actually informed about this issue, they would never stand for black boxes being installed in their vehicles.