- The Washington Times - Friday, March 25, 2005

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Raymon Holmberg didn’t know his new sedan came equipped with the long arm of the law. The dealer hadn’t bothered to mention the “black box,” a computer chip that stores information on speed and seat belt use.

“When I bought my car I didn’t realize I was also buying a highway patrolman to sit in the back seat,” he said.

Mr. Holmberg, a Republican state senator, thinks his privacy was violated and is taking aim at such devices.

A bill Mr. Holmberg is sponsoring — now up for state Senate consideration after being approved Wednesday by the House — would require buyers to be told if their new vehicle is equipped with a black box. It also would prohibit the data from being used in court unless there is a court order. Subscription services such as OnStar, which can be used to track a vehicle’s movements, would be exempt.

The bill’s most vocal critics are auto manufacturers. For General Motors Corp., it makes no sense to bar information from the computer chip from being used in court, lobbyist Thomas Kelsch said.

“What’s the societal good that would result from the suppression of valuable crash data?” Mr. Kelsch asked.

But Mr. Holmberg again raises the privacy issue. He worries the data could be used to track driving habits or be used against a driver who has an accident.

“Most people don’t realize these devices are in their vehicle, that the information recorded may be used against them and there’s no sort of regulation about who owns that information,” he said.

North Dakota is one of at least eight states considering black box regulation this year, Bob Boerner, an official with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said yesterday. Others are Connecticut, Massachusetts, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Virginia and West Virginia.

California has a law on the books requiring dealers and vehicle rental companies to inform drivers when a car has a black box. In New York, it is illegal for rental companies to use Global Positioning System technology to track drivers and use the data to charge extra fees or penalties.

Accident investigators argue that the privacy concerns are overblown.

“These guys are trying to roll back North Dakota courts to the Dark Ages,” said Jim Harris, owner of Harris Technical Services, a Florida-based accident investigation company.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), about 15 percent of vehicles — or about 30 million cars and trucks — have black boxes. About 65 percent to 90 percent of 2004 cars and trucks have them, according to the NHTSA.

Insurance companies already have limited access to some data.

State Farm requires its customers to help with investigations, including allowing insurance employees to look at their vehicles, said Dick Luedke, a spokesman for the Illinois-based insurer.

Progressive Insurance began a voluntary program last year in which the company gives drivers a chip similar to a black box that can be used to transmit data, said spokeswoman Shannon Radigan.

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