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In-Car Black Boxes: Safety Measure Or Spy Tactic?

Some Argue Device Invades Privacy

The following is a transcript of John Boel's report shown exactly the way it appeared on WLKY NewsChannel 32 at 11 p.m. on Feb. 17, 2003.

Do you think in-car black boxes are a good idea?

Anchor: "Target 32 consumer alert focuses on something inside newer cars that most people do not know they have."

Anchor: "And it's becoming controversial, because if you get in an accident, it will tell the truth about what happened, even if you don't. John Boel joins us with his special report."

Boel: "Some believe 'the black box' is an important breakthrough, capturing more information about how crashes develop, and maybe saving lives in the future. But others fear it's an intrusive attempt to find a way to blame the driver for doing something wrong. See for yourself in this Target 32 consumer alert."

Boel: "Until now, the only time you thought you were being recorded while driving was when you saw something like this (video shows officer's radar gun). But a speed gun is nothing compared to what's going on inside many cars these days."

Boel: "Many car companies are installing the auto industry's version of 'The Black Box.' Ford calls it the 'Electronic Data Recorder.' GM calls it the 'Sensing Diagnostic Module.' It's a small device that records your speed, the percentage of throttle, your RPMs, whether you have your foot on the brake and whether your seat belt is buckled. And if you get in an accident -- deploying an airbag."

Boel: "The final five seconds of that information before the crash can be downloaded and printed out in black and white. The Department of Transportation estimates most 2002 passenger cars have the so called black boxes. Ford and GM began phasing them in six years ago."

Boel: "It sounds like an amazing piece of technology, but it's also something a lot of people would like to get their hands on, like insurance companies and attorneys, to determine who's at fault in a crash. Think about it, you say you were going the speed limit, and slowing down, but the box tells a different story."

AAA Kentucky spokesman Roger Boyd: "It's one of the best kept secrets in auto manufacturing right now."

Boel: "AAA's Roger Boyd says it could be a useful device, but he, too, is concerned about invasions of privacy."

Boyd: "We believe this is evidentiary, just like anything else. And we could see the scenario, yeah, where Freedom of Information Acts are invoked. People can go in and get this information, and it could be used good or bad in trials, litigation, etc. Insurance companies are excited about this in a lot of ways because they believe it will help them determine exactly what will happen and who's to blame."

Boel: "A Ford spokeswoman says the information is only used for research, and not to snitch on drivers."

Ford Motor Co. spokeswoman Kristen Kinley: "That is a concern, but I can only speak for Ford Motor Co., not the industry. We will not obtain the data or release to a third party, like an insurance company, unless we've been subpoenaed, or a warrant or court order for the information. Ford will not fulfill a request for that information. Unless it's a legal request, we won't provide that information."

Boel: "The man who teaches a course on the data recorders says the information is not just for the car companies. He says police can get their hands on it without even going through the courts."

Local accident investigator Bruce Gazdick: "In a criminal case, it's part of your evidence. As long as you maintain custody and control of that vehicle from the time of the crash until you download it, most states' attorneys will tell you you don't need a subpoena or search warrant."

Boel: "It makes you wonder, 'Are you really getting away from it all?' When you take off in your car?"

Boyd: "Between this and global positioning and things people pay for, like on-board navigation systems, are you ever truly in a private situation in your own private vehicle? It is something people need to look at and consider."

Boel: "Roger Boyd wonders what car companies are really doing with this information because he says he deals daily with traffic safety studies. But he has yet to see a report using this information. And he says these boxes are not federally mandated, so he wonders why they can't be disconnected if you so choose."

Boel: "Bruce Gazdick says if you do that, you will be disengaging the airbag. And Gazdick says that would likely affect your insurance company's coverage if you get in a wreck."

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