Senators Seek to Shield Motor Vehicle Crash Data From Public View

A new bill introduced by Senators John Hoeven (R-ND) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) would further entrench rules that make it difficult for crash investigators to access black box data from cars.

Sen. John Hoeven is again championing drivers' rights, even at the expense of crash investigations. Photo: ## Anything Blog##
Sen. John Hoeven is again working, now at the federal level, to limit access to key data about car crashes. Photo: ## Anything Blog##

Nearly all light passenger vehicles have event data recorders (EDRs) installed in them, which record everything from speed to seat belt use, though the data is erased almost immediately unless a crash is detected. As we’ve reported in the past, with current EDR technology, a collision with a person that isn’t in a car often isn’t forceful enough to trigger an event record at all.

But EDRs that do record crash events can take some of the “he said, she said” out of the ensuing investigation and provide some needed accountability for dangerous driving. As it happens, a lot of politicians are mobilizing to limit that accountability.

Hoeven and Klobuchar introduced a bill last week (though they previewed it in the fall) that would make all data collected by a car’s black box the property of the car owner. The data could only be accessed by anyone else on the order of a judge or for a small number of other scenarios.

In a proposal last year to make EDRs mandatory in all new cars, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also emphasized that the data is the sole property of the car owner. That rule is expected to take effect this fall.

Currently, 14 states have passed laws restricting black box data to the car owner. Bill sponsor Hoeven signed one of those into law when he was governor of North Dakota. The national bill would force this approach across the country and make it that much harder for investigators to promptly access crash data.

Cars are increasingly connected to the digital world, and drivers routinely allow detailed information about their movements to be accessed by third parties. Google’s traffic reports, for instance, are crowd-sourced from information from millions of drivers’ smart-phones, and the company can now let you know when the restaurant you’re passing has a happy hour special you might like.

The information collected by EDRs is actually much less invasive — it just records the moments leading up to a collision. About the only thing that data can be used for is to determine the cause of a crash and who was culpable, and for some reason a lot of senators want to make that harder for law enforcement.

28 thoughts on Senators Seek to Shield Motor Vehicle Crash Data From Public View

  1. There’s an easy way around this-cameras at intersections recording 24/7 and putting their data on a public web site so it can’t be compromised by law enforcement. It’s easy enough to estimate vehicle speed from video. Video also will usually provide irrefutable proof of who was at fault in a crash.

  2. Maybe this is an area where national AAA would want to make themselves useful. Hard to see how shielding this data benefits anyone except reckless drivers who injure or kill other people. Most of their victims are other motor vehicle occupants.

  3. This seems to be part of the ideology that keeping tabs on driving behavior is an invasion of privacy. The car is deemed an extension of the home. But streets are public places, funded by public spending, and public servants need to determine what happened when something goes wrong. Privatizing what happens inside a car is contrary to the public interest.

  4. Eh, I am ok with requiring a judge to sign an order to give law enforcement the ability to review the crash data. It should just be a routine order to give that requires certain basic facts present (e.g. there was in fact an accident which the car was a part of. There is uncertainty regarding the circumstances of the crash that there is a reasonable suspicion the data could provide certainty for).

    The data should be reviewed after all crashes–with a court order authorizing the search.

  5. I don’t think this is reasonable. If the cops respond to a call about a person getting shot, and they see someone holding a smoking gun when they get to the scene, do they need a warrant to seize the weapon?

  6. No, but the cops at a scene of a collision should seize the car. You don’t have to search the car or interpret the data until after a court order. What is the hurry?

  7. If the car is driven, the data on the recorder will be erased. Maybe there’s a way to disable this or otherwise change the way EDRs work, but it seems far simpler to just allow law enforcement to collect the info, the same way they perform BAC tests if there’s reasonable suspicion.

  8. So if the data is automatically deleted, I agree with you. But that seems like something technology should be able to fix in the next year or two.

    Law enforcement has been known to over reach in their searches and a rubber stamp from a court shouldn’t hurt much other than to prevent the most severe overreaches.

    Additionally, by getting a court order it decreases the chances a driver gets off when the inevitable constitutional challenge to the search occurs.

  9. Let me point out that automotive EDRs only start recording after being triggered. It’s my understanding that you need larger forces than occur in “normal” driving to trigger the EDR ( ). Therefore, there is a good chance that if the car was driven even after the collision, the crash data would still be present in the EDR. Remember often vehicles must be moved after a crash for safety, and yet this movement doesn’t erase the data in the EDR.

    In my opinion, EDRs are of limited use because they only trigger after the fact. I think we should require all vehicles to have the equivalent of a “black box” which continually logs vehicle telemetry. Given the storage capacities available with flash memory these days, you can log literally decades worth of data. Moreover, you can also log the precise location via GPS. Sure, such a requirement would absolutely be opposed by many lawmakers but we require every other type of vehicle to log such data, including heavy trucks and buses. There’s no reason automobiles should be exempt. Maybe we could make such a requirement more palatable by only allowing the data to be used for crash investigations, not for routine enforcement of speeding.

    EDIT: Thinking about this some more, the GPS navigation systems present on a lot of vehicles can and probably do have a record of at least vehicle speed and location. This probably gets overwritten in a continuous loop every few hours, but it’s there if police have the tools to retrieve it.

  10. lately i’ve been thinking of using my phone to record the last 10 minutes of video on a loop like they do in russia
    at the minimum if i get into a collision i’ll probably take some photos right away and upload them to dropbox or google drive.

  11. The best part is the very same ideology often holds that people outside the car don’t share the right to privacy. Or dignity.

  12. This is crazy! If you are operating a potentially lethal machine in a public space, you have a duty to your fellow citizens to do it safely. If there is a crash, your data should be open and accessible. Planes and trains have black boxes that are completely open to Federal investigators. Cars are just as deadly! (Actually, much more so, statistically.)

  13. The electronic logs in heavy trucks is to enforce work hour rules yes? To try to prevent them from driving when tired. If you record the position once every 15 minutes it would be sufficient for that purpose, and would not be burdensome to store a record. What level of detail would be of use to determine the factors leading to a crash? A tenth of a second? Say the car is driven six hours a day, and you only record when the car is running. More than average, but not unheard of for personal vehicles. That works out to 80 million data points per year. How much storage would you need per data point then? Location, seatbelt indicators, throttle/brake intensity, maybe tire pressure, turn signal indicators etc….could easily reach a kilobyte per event, to grow substantially if you want to include data from sensors that would record if you are tailgating someone, or leaving the lane etc… At which point you need a storage device that can take a hell of a beating and still record, with a low fault rate, and storage of 80 GB per year. Keeping decades of data? Unfeasible at any meaningful resolution. If you record continuously, but only commit to memory the sixty seconds of data before and after a crash, even at higher resolutions the data storage element wouldn’t be unduly burdensome with even a rather sensitive impact sensor designed to be triggered by hitting a pedestrian. Even at this step back though, it could easily add a few hundred dollars to the cost of a car.

  14. Much of that sensor data is of the on-off variety. Seatbelts are either on or they’re not. You only need one bit per seat belt. Same thing with a lot of the other sensor data. You can store eight such sensor inputs per byte doing it this way. I don’t know how many binary sensor inputs might be of interest in a crash, but I’ll venture to guess it’s less than 50. So you have maybe 6 bytes for that. Now add the other sensor data which might have dozens of possible values. You have speed (1 byte), tire pressure (1 byte per tire), throttle/brake position (1 byte each), maybe 5 or 6 temperature values at one byte each. That’s 12 or 13 bytes plus the 6 bytes for binary sensor values, or 18-19 bytes total. For good measure I’ll even double that value. This gives plenty of room to include location and time. So we have 40 bytes per record. I highly doubt we need 1/10th second resolution but let’s say we do. That’s 400 bytes per second, or 1.44 MB per hour. I mentioned that we could keep decades of such data not because it’s necessary (it isn’t) but because flash RAM is available in GBs. With your hypothetical extreme example of 6 hours per day driving, we would need a bit over 3 GB per year. Honestly, we don’t need to keep even a year’s worth of detailed data. We could keep a month’s worth. That’s only 250 MB. We can even have two sets of flash RAM-250 MB or so of highly reliable ECC memory for that crucial last month’s worth of data, and a conventional SSD for less critical archiving purposes. You can get at least a decade’s worth of data, more likely two or three, on a small (by today’s standards) 32 GB SSD. Incidentally, I keep GPS logs with 1 second resolution of my bike rides. A typical log for 1.5 hours of riding is about 130 KB. That’s speed, position, and altitude data. This kind of data is highly compressible, so much so that a .zip file takes 1/3 the space. I would imagine automotive telemetry data might be similarly compressible. Bottom line-the storage requirements for months, or even years, of data aren’t onerous.

    Yes, all this might add maybe $200 or so to the price of a car (or maybe not since a lot of the electronics to record sensor data already exist on cars with EDRs). Whatever it will add isn’t prohibitive. In fact, insurance companies would probably love the concept because it allows them to waste fewer resources determining who actually caused a crash. That should result in lower premiums, perhaps even more than saving the cost of the hardware over the life of the car.

  15. I can see why some Senators would be trying to prevent this: politicians are just as bad if not worse drivers than the general public. Black boxes that record what happened right before and just after a wreck would be highly useful information to opposing party operatives. The answer of course is to make the data available to cops at the scene but only for prosecution and investigation purposes. Release outside a courtroom by either side would be a criminal offense. Say a one year suspension of law license for attorneys, or a fine equal to one year’s pay for LEO that are not attorneys. A law like that should protect the security of that data.

  16. I’d support a bill that would provide the data to law enforcement during the investigation of a crash (a download USB port could be on all cars in the future), and stipulate that the info would be kept secure for the purposes of law enforcement crash investigation. It could be kept to be called up by plaintiff’s attorneys and insurance companies, who could go to court to get the data by court order. Using black boxes to hold drivers accountable was something Charlie Komanoff and I put in our Traffic Justice presentations back in 2006. As Joe R. shows in his long and thoughtful post below, the technology is no big deal.

    Heck, if the NSA can be reading this post as I type it, why can’t the cops get my black box? Its ironic we allow the government the power to wipe its ass with the 4th Amendment, while screaming to hold our privacy so dear in this case. Of course, in this case, its the bad driver looking out for himself.

  17. Insurance companies should take the lead here. Allow the insurance company access to the EDR, get $100 off your premium. Put cameras inside your car (dash cam, driver cam), get $300 off your premium. I think if people start getting discounts on insurance, all of the “civil liberty” issues would go away very quickly.

  18. I assume they think of their bill as the first step towards rolling back the NSA ability to do this.

  19. The 4th amendment doesn’t apply here. Operating a motor vehicle on a public road is a privilege. Government can determine the conditions necessary to grant this privilege, including requiring a license demonstrating competency to operate the vehicle, and allowing law enforcement to use whatever tools are available to investigate a crash. Because it’s a privilege, government can even change the requirements for operating a motor vehicle whenever it wants to. If government decided tomorrow to require higher licensing standards for all drivers, those failing to meet them who could no longer drive would have no legal recourse.

    The 4th Amendment is to prevent unreasonable searches and seizures. Using available data to determine the cause of a crash, especially if there is death or injury, is hardly an unreasonable seizure. As Mark Walker said, privatizing what happens inside a car is contrary to the public interest. The only drivers who would benefit from supporting this are poor drivers who know they would be found at fault if crash data were made available.

  20. The 4th Amendment specifies “persons, houses, papers, and effects.” It says nothing about cars (or the founding fathers’ equivalent, horses and coaches).The 4th Amendment also says police can obtain a search warrant in any instance if they have “probable cause.” In addition, there is a specific body of law called the motor vehicle exception which allows cars to be searched without a warrant..

  21. An “accident” is probable cause, so the 4th Admendment is irrelevant. But it sounds like you have something to hide…

  22. I discovered that the Supreme Court carved out an exception to 4th Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure for motor vehicles in Carroll v. United States (1925) which has since been broadened. This proposed legislation would limit the motor vehicle exception.

    Why do you people hate privacy so much? We used to pride ourselves that we weren’t like the Soviet Union which spied on its people. Now we have become just like them.

    I haven’t got anything to hide. I just want to be left alone.

  23. The motor vehicle exception is a pile of crap, as with most of the unconstitutional “exceptions” to the 4th Amendment invented by corrupt judges. It needs to be abolished along with the “national security exception” and the “state secrets exception” and the “police made an honest mistake exception” and all the other bullcrap.

    However, a car crash should be considered probable cause for searching a car. Period.

  24. The bill wouldn’t “shield” the data from anything except fishing expeditions.

    Get a judge to sign off on it, the police can get the data. Getting a judge to sign off on it should be trivial in any legitimate case.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Securing Traffic Crash Data Isn’t a Violation of Privacy

Most cars these days are equipped with an “event data recorder,” or EDR — a device that tracks information like vehicle speed and brake activation, which engineers can use to fine tune safety features. They can also be used to determine fault in a collision. While that capability is not widely deployed yet, EDRs could be […]

Senate Dems Unveil Auto Safety Legislation

Democrats are moving quickly on their plan to take a unified approach to auto safety reforms in the aftermath of the Toyota recalls, with Senate Commerce Committee members releasing a new bill today that would quintuple the maximum existing penalties for carmakers who — like Toyota — fail to promptly notify the public of defective […]