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

By James J. Baxter, NMA Founder

Orwell had it right; his timing was just off a couple decades.

The world of universal surveillance is upon us and so far not much of anything is really being said about it. Those who talk about “privacy” are written off as crackpots or malcontents. Anyone who complains about being tracked, monitored, or photographed is assumed to be guilty of some transgression against an employer, government edict, or society in general.

There once were technical and practical barriers that prevented corporate and governmental entities from tracking and monitoring our every move. There also once existed political barriers that discouraged intrusive prying into most aspects of our daily lives. These barriers no longer exist.

Inserting a benign microchip in a person’s earlobe and monitoring that person’s every move is no longer a science fiction event, it’s perfectly feasible and tens of millions will willingly comply with such a requirement. All that’s needed is the right concoction of incentives.

You say, “no way, the free and the brave will never stand for it!” Well, I’ve got news for you, they will. In fact they already are. The only difference is that the chip is not in their ear, it’s in their car — and soon to be in your bike.

Our all-seeing corporate and governmental benefactors have big plans for us. Call it “better living through constant surveillance and centralized control.” Private and government transportation interests have been licking their chops for years in anticipation of being able to charge/tax motorists on the basis of how, when, and where they travel.

The insurance industry and vehicle manufacturers can barely restrain themselves when it comes to expanding the capabilities of in-vehicle data recorders. There is no limitation to the length of time and range of measurements that can be absorbed and disgorged by these devices. Furthermore, the technology already exists to automatically communicate this data to roadside transponders. Today’s “black boxes” are the equivalent of a 60’s HD Rapido, but their most important role is fulfilled, setting the precedent for personal surveillance through personal vehicles. Take my word for it, the “V-ROD” version is waiting in the wings.

Surveillance for surveillance sake is sort of a voyeur thing. But surveillance for the sake of control and exploitation are what really get the juices flowing at places like EPA, NHTSA and your average insurance company.

One of the much discussed and hoped for components of the third generation On-Board-Diagnostic System (OBD 3) for emission controls is the ability (actually the authority, the ability already exists) to remotely read emissions systems’ status as vehicles pass by a roadside reader/transponder. And, better yet, the authority to send a signal that puts a vehicle in “limp home” mode if defective emission components are detected.

Actually, the “limp home” options are endless. Ride too fast past a reader/transponder? Limp home. Late paying your registration fee? Limp home. Outstanding parking fine? Limp home. Of course only official fee and fine collection agencies will be certified to re-set the limp home trigger.

A few years ago a northeastern wrinkle belly car rental agency received a lot of publicity when it surcharged customers’ rental fees several hundred dollars for exceeding speed limits. It turned out that the GPS units in the cars were reporting the vehicle speeds in various speed zones and the mouse print rental contract sanctioned the practice of assessing surcharges for violating speed limits. This was a short-lived operation, but it serves as a window into the future.

Another interesting quirk of the ON STAR navigation system is that the conversations of the vehicle occupants can be listened to and recorded, without the knowledge of those occupants. For this you get to pay extra money???

Of late there has been some interest, albeit minimal, in the black boxes that record vehicle operation events prior to a crash. Throttle position, brake pressure, engine RPM, and vehicle speed are some of the factors collected. The excuse for this data collection is claimed to be “research.” And a Step-Through 50 will outrun a Ninja ZX-12R. Read L-I-A-B-I-L-T-Y and E-N-F-O-R-C-E-M-E-M-E-N-T. It’s the New Age version of being able to pay for your own gallows rope.

Car manufacturers have solemnly declared that the black box and the information it contains belong to the owner of the car.

The California Legislature attempted to restrict access to black box recordings but left in loopholes you could drive a school bus through. For example, a subpoena could be used to get the information. And just how much trouble do you suppose the average DA is going to have getting a subpoena?

How long do you think it will take insurance policies to include a provision that their insureds agree to give them access to the black box data? And, we’re told that responders to crash scenes are routinely grabbing the black boxes if the victim is unable to protest.

Realistically, under the current scenario, black box data is available to anyone who really wants it. But, it gets worse. There is virtually no limitation to the breadth of information or the length of time this information could be recorded, depending on the motives and motivations of government and industry.

Picture this: You’re riding with the flow of traffic, say 40 MPH and the speed limit, like most speed limits, is under posted at 30 MPH. Suddenly an on-coming car whips a left in front of you and you center-punch the drivers door, doing considerable damage to you and the driver. His insurance company refuses to pay your claims on the basis that you were exceeding the speed limit and that there is evidence that you are a dangerous maniacal rider that shouldn’t even have a license.

At the trial the opposition pulls out the black box data. Sure enough, you were going 10 MPH over the speed limit, but traffic records show that everyone travels that road at 10 MPH over the speed limit. Then they show that on 47 occasions over the past six months you hit speeds in excess of 90 MPH! You’re portrayed as a loose cannon looking for a place to have an accident. In fact, not five minutes before the accident you were traveling 87 MPH! It doesn’t matter that you were executing a clean, safe pass, you were exceeding the speed limit by 27 miles per hour, “reckless driving” according to state statutes.

You get the picture and it isn’t pretty.

This article appeared in Motorcyclist Magazine.