- The Washington Times - Monday, August 21, 2006


Automobile owners need to be told if their vehicles are equipped with event-data recorders, commonly called “black boxes,” the government said yesterday.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said automakers, beginning with 2011 model-year vehicles, will need to disclose the existence of the technology in owner’s manuals. Privacy groups have said many owners don’t know the boxes are in their cars.

The data recorders also will need to be more durable to protect the information during a crash, NHTSA said. Vehicles with the devices will need to collect at least 15 types of data, including vehicle speed, whether the driver was wearing a seat belt and whether the driver hit the accelerator or the brake before the crash.

The recorders can provide hard data for crash investigators. But the devices have raised concerns from privacy experts, who worry that the information could be accessed by anyone and say most people don’t know whether the black boxes are in their vehicles.

The rules do not require the data recorders to be used in all new vehicles, despite past recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board that the devices be required.

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, which had asked the government to require the devices, called the rule-making a “halfhearted attempt,” noting that it did not mandate the collection of the data by the government.

With more than 40,000 motorists killed on the roads each year, supporters said the black boxes give investigators and automakers extensive data that can help them design better vehicle-safety features and improved roads.

“This is nothing more than replacing bad data with good data,” said Ricardo Martinez, a former NHTSA administrator. He said the rules will help bring “a landmark change in vehicle safety.”

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents nine automakers, including General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., said it supported the rules, calling the devices “an important component of the vehicle safety system.”

About 64 percent of 2005 model year vehicles have the equipment. GM and Ford install the devices in virtually all new vehicles.

Ten states have laws dealing with the devices, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many require manufacturers to disclose the presence of recorders in vehicles and clarify that the data is owned by the vehicle’s owner and can be accessed only with his permission.

NHTSA said it gets permission from owners to use the data and keeps all personally identifiable information confidential. But it said its role on the privacy issues was limited because they generally fall under state and federal laws.

Jay Stanley, a privacy expert with the American Civil Liberties Union, said the government “punted on the most important privacy issues,” such as whether the data is accessible to third parties without a judicial order or an owner’s consent and whether the devices can be turned on or off.

“If these standards encourage broader adoption, it’s important that we get the privacy rules of the roads pinned down so we can enjoy the benefits of this technology without worrying about the dark side of privacy violations,” Mr. Stanley said.

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