- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 1, 2003

No one disputes that Michelle Zimmermann lost control of her 2002 GMC Yukon as she drove on a two-lane highway in Massachusetts one snowy afternoon last January. Her friend died after the sport utility vehicle slammed into a tree.

Miss Zimmermann said she was driving within the posted 40 mph speed limit, but like millions of other Americans the 33-year-old didn’t know that her vehicle had a “black box.” Monitoring her driving, it recorded the last few seconds before the crash.

Bolstered by data they say indicates Miss Zimmermann was driving well above the speed limit, prosecutors have charged the Beverly, Mass., woman with negligent vehicular homicide. She has pleaded not guilty and faces up to 2 years in jail if convicted.

An estimated 25 million automobiles in the United States now have event data recorders, a scaled-down version of the devices that monitor cockpit activity in airplanes. Like aviation recorders, automobile black boxes mainly receive attention after an accident.

The devices’ primary function is to monitor various sensors and decide whether to fire air bags. Since the 1998 model year, all new cars from all manufacturers have been required to have air bags and so most such recent-model cars have the devices. But secondary and more recently installed features in many recorders store data from a few seconds before a crash.

Though capabilities vary widely among carmakers, most recorders store only limited information on speed, seat-belt use, physical forces, brakes and other factors. Voices are not recorded.

But the devices are finding its way into courtrooms as evidence in criminal and civil cases, leading some privacy advocates to question how the recorders came to be installed so widely with so little public notice or debate.

“It’s like having a government agent driving around in the back seat of your car,” said Bob Weiner, Miss Zimmermann’s defense attorney and a former prosecutor. “I think it’s a tremendous invasion of privacy.”

Most people apparently don’t even know whether the vehicles they drive are equipped with event data recorders. Nearly two-thirds of people surveyed by an insurance industry group knew nothing about them.

“The real issue is one of notice, and the problem arises from the fact that information is being collected about people’s driving behavior without them knowing,” said David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a District-based public research center that focuses on civil liberties issues. “If drivers knew about the device, they could at least then begin asking questions.”

Automakers and regulators have ignored basic privacy questions, leaving individual courts to decide such issues as who owns the information and whether a warrant is required to access it, he said. Some studies have questioned the data’s reliability and accuracy.

Prosecutors, police and accident reconstructionists say the boxes yield information no different from what can be gleaned from crushed metal, skid marks and other evidence at the scene.

“It’s appearing in prosecutors’ cases in support of the normal reconstruction,” said W.R. “Rusty” Haight, director of the Collision Safety Institute.

General Motors Corp. has been using recording-capable devices, called Sensing and Diagnostic Modules, since the 1990s to help improve safety and gather statistics.

“We collect the data with the permission with the owner or the person who is leasing the vehicle,” GM spokesman Jim Schell said. “When that data is collected, we take great care to assure confidentiality.”

The modules helped GM figure out why some air bags were deploying inadvertently, leading to a recall in 1998 of more than 850,000 Chevrolet Cavaliers and Pontiac Sunfires.

But there’s interest in the data beyond engineering — namely, from lawyers. GM and, more recently, Ford Motor Co. now allow outsiders to access the data by buying a $2,500 reader built by Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Vetronix Corp.

The company says its primary customers are accident reconstructionists, law enforcement and insurance companies.

So far, about 1,000 of the devices have been sold, primarily in the United States and Canada. The reader devices enable lawyers, insurance companies and its other users to access the “black box” data from some GM models since 1996 and most since 1998, and for some Ford models since 2001, with more to come.

No other auto manufacturers have let any outsider have access to the expertise needed to develop black-box readers for their models, but Vetronix hopes to reach such deals.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been studying data recorders for years, trying to determine whether the auto industry should standardize the equipment. Any decision could be years away, and there’s no guarantee privacy would be addressed then.

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