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Black Box In Your Car: Safety Device Or Snitch?

Consumers Rarely Told About Monitoring Device

POSTED: 8:51 a.m. CDT July 11, 2003
UPDATED: 8:56 a.m. CDT July 11, 2003

There's a good chance there is a black box in your car if it was made within the past several years, Target 5's Lisa Parker reported.

black box"And it landed there with very little discussion about privacy," Parker said.

The device is designed to help police determine who's at fault in an accident, Parker said, and to help prosecutors go after negligent drivers. At crash scenes, important questions about what happened and how it happened often go unanswered, Parker said.

"But that may be about to change," Parker said. "Tucked under car seats and mounted in dashboards of millions of cars on the road today is a little-known device tracking a car's every move."

This "added extra" is sparking some controversy, with wide-ranging opinions.

Originally installed by automakers to monitor air bag activity, today's "black box" can do much more. Some models track how fast a motorist is driving, when a driver hits the brakes, and if a driver is wearing a seat belt. Certain models only activate right before a crash. Others monitor conditions constantly but rerecord information every five seconds.

"It doesn't tell the whole story," Toni DiViesti, of Dynamic Safety, said. "It's just a piece of the puzzle."

Parker said the black box was not designed with police or attorneys in mind; carmakers made them to gather crash information and improve vehicle safety.

"The data that can be provided through event data recorders can be very very helpful in making sure that the systems are working as intended," said Phil Haseltine, of the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety

Black boxes are not new to automomakers, Parker said. General Motors has been installing the devices for years -- as early as 1994. Ford, Toyota and Honda also use them.

"But consumers are just now getting wind of the devices-- and here's the sticky part," Parker said. "Data from black boxes is making its way into court cases across the country. And almost invariably, the information recorded is used against the driver -- a driver who, in many cases, had no idea the box was even in the car."

Harold Krent, of Kent-Chicago Law School, told Parker motorists should be able to choose whether or not they want the black boxes in their cars.

"I don't think consumers have any idea that their actions in their cars are being recorded," Krent said. "I mean this is not something that is disclosed readily to an individual when purchasing a car ... Because of distrust, because of fear of external monitoring, (someone) might decide not to have it. And I think that's critical when it comes to consumer choice and for protection of consumer privacy."

Count Adrianne Newman among those consumers who were peeved to find out her car is recording her every move.

"It's an invasion of privacy," according to Newman. "What you do in your own car, you think, is private. To be told that you're being recorded -- it's an invasion of privacy."

Chuck Tiedje, an Arlington Heights police officer who almost died when a hearse slammed into his squad car, disagreed with Newman and called the devices "little boxes of truth."

"The black box is a beautiful thing because it peels away all human emotion and gives you cold hard facts: 'This is what happened,'" Tiedje told Parker.

Tiedje said he was in a coma for 26 days after the hearse struck his squad car. Nearly 20 surgeries and two years later, he said he has no memory of the accident -- but the black box in the hearse that hit him does have a memory.

"It showed in the five seconds prior to impact, the hearse accelerated from 61 to 63 mph in a 45-mph zone."

While doctors saved his life, Tiedje said, the black box preserved his future. Its "eyewitness account" led to a $10 million settlement of his case.

"This isn't Big Brother looking over your shoulder," Tiedje said. "This is something to help you and you if don't have anything to hide, you don't have anything to worry about."

Parker said consumers do not have control over the boxes and cannot disable them if they're installed in their cars.

"Safety experts urge you not to touch the device because it is linked to the air bag system and could compromise your safety," Parker said. "But police do need a search warrant before they can get their hands on the box."

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