“Black Box” Standard for New Cars Could Be Big Gain for Street Safety

The auto safety bill working its way through Congress includes a provision with major implications for traffic enforcement and safer streets: a rule to equip new cars with "black boxes" capable of recording up to 60 seconds worth of pre-crash data.

rasha_shamoon.jpgThe NYPD investigation into the 2008 crash that killed cyclist Rasha Shamoon relied heavily on interviews with the driver and his passengers.

What might black boxes — scaled-down versions of flight recorders used in commercial airliners since the 1950s — bring to street safety? Data and accountability.

Data that can reveal driver choices such as speed and braking in the crucial seconds preceding a crash; and driver accountability that police and prosecutors historically have been loath to enforce, in part because crash reconstruction has lacked sufficiently firm evidence.

U.S. automakers began installing "event recorders" in new cars in the 1990s to defend against lawsuits over air bag deployment, and most cars built since 2004 have some sort of data recording device. But the current NHTSA standard for black boxes is optional, and recommends that they record only five seconds of data preceding crashes. Which makes it noteworthy that the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers told Congress last month that it won’t oppose making the standard mandatory and extending the recording period to a full minute. That interval should be sufficient to give crash investigators information to assign culpability, and, where the facts warrant, for prosecutors to indict and juries to convict.

Here’s how the New York Times reported an early use of black box data to convict a reckless driver in Rochester, in 2004:

After Danny G. Hopkins’s Cadillac CTS rear-ended Lindsay Kyle’s Dodge Neon at a traffic light in Rochester a year ago, witnesses said Mr. Hopkins had been zooming down the road, and crash investigators who examined the condition and location of the wreckage estimated that Mr. Hopkins was traveling 65 to 70 miles an hour at the point of impact. But in a trial that ended on Oct. 7, a witness emerged with more to say: that four seconds before the crash, it had been traveling 106 m.p.h. The witness in the case was an event data recorder, an automotive equivalent of the black boxes used to reconstruct plane crashes. A jury convicted Mr. Hopkins of second-degree manslaughter, a crime whose elements include recklessness and which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in jail.

The Monroe County assistant district attorney told the Times, “Clearly the black box technology played a large part in the jury’s finding of guilty.” Six years later, why aren’t DA’s routinely mining black boxes for data?

One reason is the limited data from black boxes noted earlier. Another is the low staffing for, and status of, traffic justice in police departments and prosecutorial agencies. But the biggest obstacle has been the huge weight accorded privacy concerns, a penchant inadvertently played up by the 2004 Times story headline, “Does Your Car Have a Spy in the Engine?” As U.K. road safety campaigner John Whitelegg once noted, the public’s right for protection against lethal driving has been trumped by motorists’ "right" to protection from the risk of being found guilty of breaking the law.

Much of this could change if, as appears likely, Congress writes a black-box standard into the auto safety bill. As I wrote six years ago [PDF], with the notable exception of DWI, which can be conclusively demonstrated in a roadside breathalyzer test or by measuring the driver’s blood alcohol content, irrefutable evidence implicating negligent drivers has been expensive or impossible for the state to obtain. Indeed, the difficulty of conclusively assigning responsibility for vehicle crashes helped give rise to no-fault insurance in the 1960s, paving the way for the no-fault ethos that helps make our streets and highways killing zones.

Putting reckless driving on a par with drunk driving, both legally and culturally, is a key building block for safe and livable streets in New York and across America. A strong federal black-box standard could be a major step.

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