February 1, 2004 - Black box unlocks car crash mysteries
When a plane crashes, one of the first things investigators look for is the "black box." These recorders store information that can solve the mysteries of a crash. Today, there is similar technology in about 25 million vehicles. And chances are, if you drive a new car, you've got one hidden under your seat.
Data recorders in newer vehicles note the use of brakes, seat belts and air bags, as well as the speed. The National Transportation Safety Board urged manufacturers to install this technology in new cars to make crash investigation and reconstruction easier. The devices start recording once air bags have been deployed--about five seconds before a crash--when most witnesses are not able to remember what happened. Did they hit the brakes? Were they speeding? These questions will be answered more easily through the use of the black boxes. Most, if not all, of the data from the box can be downloaded onto a computer.
To protect the privacy of the car owner, the California Legislature recently passed the first law regulating the use of these black boxes. Unlike those used on airplanes, the boxes installed in vehicles do not record sound or conversations. Still, Senator Tim Leslie, sponsor of the California bill, believes the information in these data recorders should be protected by the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Under the new law, motor vehicle owners must be informed that their car has a recorder, and that the data can't be downloaded unless the owner gives consent. The only way around that stipulation is through a court order or if the information will be used for medical or safety research and can't be traced back to the individual car and owner.
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