by Lawrence Herzog

In April 2004, a 26-year-old motorist was convicted of dangerous driving causing death on a downtown Montreal street. He also made history. The Event Data Recorder (EDR) – more commonly known as a “black box” – in Eric Gauthier’s car revealed that he was driving 131 km/h in a 50-km/h zone when he collided with the other vehicle, killing its driver and injuring a passenger. Subsequently sentenced to 18 months in jail for dangerous driving and nine months for dangerous driving causing injury, Gauthier was convicted in one of the first trials in a Canadian courtroom to accept data evidence from a motor vehicle’s EDR.

In another recent traffic incident, a car in busy traffic on Highway 400 between Toronto and Barrie, Ontario, was involved in a chain-reaction crash that took the life of a child. Witnesses stated the driver was reckless and had triggered the tragedy. Yet the driver was cleared of all charges when his vehicle’s tiny, silent witness showed that he was, in fact, driving properly and within the speed limit.

Two different traffic tragedies, two different trial outcomes, yet both raise the same question: are EDRs a valuable new technology that could make our roads safer, or are they just another way for “Big Brother” to keep an eye on our every move?

Event Data Recorder technology has been around for more than 40 years and has long been used by air and, more recently, rail and marine carriers. However, thanks to media coverage of plane crashes, it is aircraft Flight Data Recorders (FDRs) that we’re most familiar with. These black boxes monitor operation systems and provide invaluable post-crash information to investigators studying what went wrong and how to avoid future tragedies.

Since 1960, for example, information collected from FDRs has helped reduce by 6,000 per cent the number of aircraft crashes per 1.6 million aircraft kilometres flown. Today, given that 90 per cent of all transportation deaths are caused by motor vehicle collisions, traffic safety advocates believe that EDR technology could achieve similar results on our roads. Yet many motorists don’t even know their vehicle is equipped with one of these little black boxes.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports that most recent-model passenger cars and other light vehicles have EDR units with at least some recording capability, and that more than half of those units record basic readings known as “crash pulse data.” This is vehicle- and occupant-based information recorded a few seconds before, during and after a crash. As well, increasing numbers of vehicles now on the road are at minimum equipped with an SDM (Sensing Diagnostic Module). This module is part of the air bag deployment system found in all new vehicles and records basic technical data in the few moments before a crash.

What has safety advocates paying closer attention, however, is that EDR technology has come a long way in the past few years. The first EDRs used in aircraft and motor vehicles were rudimentary devices that recorded just five or six different readings, including the vehicle’s speed at the time of the crash.

However, the latest EDRs – like their flight data cousins – can monitor and record nearly 100 different readings of vehicle systems, everything from engine throttle position to the seatbelt status of each passenger. General Motors has had SDMs in all its models since 1999, and Ford since 2000. But other vehicle manufacturers are following suit, and it’s likely that most new vehicles will have on-board EDRs by 2009.

“Transport Canada should require motor vehicle manufacturers to equip all new vehicles with on-board crash sensing and recording devices,” says Rob Taylor, Alberta Motor Association’s vice-president of advocacy and community services. “It should also establish minimum standards for recorder performance and the types of data to be collected.”

For example, a motor vehicle’s EDR could tell investigators how fast the vehicle was moving, where it was travelling and in what direction, changes in speed (braking or accelerating; also known as Delta v), if and how air bags were deployed and whether the driver’s foot was on the gas or the brake. Such a data stream also reveals when and with what force the brakes were applied, if any steering corrections were made, how big a jolt the occupants sustained and whether or not they were wearing seatbelts.

According to the Canada Safety Council, knowing what was happening in a vehicle just prior to a crash is of great value to collision investigation experts, and that such information also enables automobile manufacturers to design safer vehicles.

Police and collision reconstruction investigators are already using data from EDRs (with permission of the owner or with a court order) to determine exactly what happened in the seconds before, during and after a crash. The palm-sized units, safely tucked under a front seat or beneath the centre console, frequently corroborate evidence from traditional sources such as skid marks and eyewitness accounts.

Combined with vehicle speed, Delta v data also helps determine the force of a crash. Engine, vehicle speed and braking behaviour give clues to the driver’s actions. As in the Montreal and Toronto crashes, such data can help tip the balance between guilt or innocence when the physical evidence is inconclusive and the evidence provided by witnesses contradictory.

The Canada Safety Council says studies of the benefits of EDRs have so far been promising, and that installing EDRs in fleet vehicles, such as those maintained by government agencies or companies, has been shown to reduce collisions. A 1992 study by the European Union, for example, found that EDRs reduce vehicle collision rates by 28 per cent and, in police fleets, insurance and collision costs were reduced by 40 per cent.

The new breed of EDRs could also assist investigators in solving some of the many crashes that might otherwise remain a mystery, such as fatal single vehicle incidents with no witnesses. Did the driver fall asleep? Was the road slippery? Might the crash have been intentional?

Organizations speaking up for safer roads, such as the Canadian Automobile Association, believe the information from EDRs should also be made available to traffic safety advocates and researchers. “The availability of such accurate data would enable investigators to more thoroughly analyze motor vehicle collisions, which would go a long way toward making the roads safer,” says Maureen Murray at CAA Saskatchewan.

That said, CAA’s position is that the collection, storage and dissemination of data from EDRs must not reveal information that would identify drivers or infringe upon their privacy. “Removing the last six digits of the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) would protect driver privacy while still providing enough information to identify the vehicle model,” says Mark Woodhouse, senior researcher for AMA Advocacy & Community Services.

Currently, General Motors’ optional OnStar service (a help centre drivers can access from their cars) is already automatically notified when one of its vehicle’s air bags are activated. Down the road, the system could transmit EDR data directly to emergency services, including paramedics, providing them with information on the force of the crash that would help personnel respond with better treatment at the crash site. But the technology is raising concerns about privacy, self-incrimination and the use and control of the data itself.

Even Canada’s privacy commissioner has warned about the “Big Brother” potential of such technology, which includes on-board satellite navigation units and electronic highway toll devices. Four years ago, a group of GM owners launched a suit claiming they weren’t aware that their cars could monitor their driving. (EDRs record data for a few seconds before, during and after a crash, but monitor constantly.) GM owner manuals do mention EDRs and the automaker has strengthened notices in the books, but surveys indicate few owners actually read their manuals.

Questions have also been raised about who owns the EDR data recorded in the seconds before, during and after a crash, i.e., who can access it and for what purposes. Is the use of the data an invasion of individual privacy? The legal community in Canada has expressed the opinion that EDR data is the property of the owner and access should not be granted without the owner’s consent or unless ordered by a court. Yet, under the terms of most insurance policies, when a claim is filed, the insurer is entitled to access to the vehicle and all its equipment.

A 2001/2002 study commissioned by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concludes that the key to public acceptance of EDR technology is in convincing motorists that these little black boxes will help protect them from harm rather than help insurers and the courts penalize them for driving mistakes made. But until EDRs become commonplace and the technology more advanced, the automobile industry, insurers and police are moving carefully, aware of the potential for consumer backlash.

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