The Little Auto Black Box: Friend or Foe?

The auto black box or Event Data Recorded (EDR) is a device installed in a motor vehicle for the purpose of recording technical information about that vehicle and its occupants for a specific and very brief period of time. This device records the few seconds before, during and after a motor vehicle accident. The purpose is to monitor and assess the vehicle’s safety system performance (per the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration or NHTSA).

These EDRs were originally designed by automobile manufacturers as part of a control unit to help them assess and improve air bag performance. But the technology got better and better with time. Now these devices can collect such things as: vehicle dynamics, safety system status, driver inputs (behavior), and restraint system usage and deployment. Driver inputs (behavior)

In essence, the data collected by an auto black box can provide much valuable information about the severity of the collision and whether or not the automobile was operating properly at the time.

The way it works is through numerous sensors in different areas of the vehicle; when a significant collision (not a minor tap) happens, these sensors send data to the EDR. These sensors measure: the force of impact, the speed at which the vehicle had been traveling, how fast the engine was revving (not necessarily the same as speed), whether driver was braking or accelerating, which way the vehicle was being steered (and if a turn signal was being utilized), whether or not the air bag deployed, and even whether or not occupants were wearing their seatbelts.

Not every vehicle has an auto black box. If you do not already know whether or not you have one, you might look under your driver’s seat or beneath the center console. Many vehicles being manufactured as of 2011 have an EDR. Also, a federal law requiring all vehicle manufacturers to disclose the presence and use of EDR systems took effect in 2011; that disclosure must be made within the vehicle owner’s manual. You may look for it in the index under “EDR or Event Data Recorder”; the disclosure must also list what data is being recorded.

If you have been involved in an automobile accident and are wondering whether or not the insurance company is entitled to access your black box data as part of their investigation, you may or may not be relieved to know that as the vehicle owner you are also the owner of the EDR data. Whether you are relieved or not will probably depend upon whether or not you believe that you were at fault for the accident.

If your EDR shows that you were speeding or steering into oncoming traffic, you might be unable to avoid being found at fault. However, if you were not at fault, EDR evidence might help you have your name cleared even without the testimony of an independent witness. If the matter goes into litigation, the parties have the right to subpoena the EDR information so the evidence will be obtained sooner or later.

Auto black boxes are not new. They were actually being put into private passenger vehicles as early as 1996. (The technology has been around a lot longer; auto black boxes are similar to those found in aircraft.) By 2005, more than sixty percent of vehicles by GM and Ford had black boxes.

This article is written for informational purposes and is not intended to take the place of competent local legal counsel.

Other articles that you may find interesting:

What to do If You Have Been in an Accident

An Explanation of the Insurance Company's Claims Process

The Contributory Negligence Defense

The Last Clear Chance Rule (the obligation to avoid an accident)

The Intentional Act or Intentional Injury Exclusion

What to do if You are Sued as the Result of an Accident

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