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

While Albany dithers over bus lane cameras, there’s encouraging movement in Washington on a different automated-enforcement front: 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.

The first use of black box data to convict a reckless driver in New York State was in Rochester in 2004. Here’s how the Times reported it:

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.

  • Doug

    This could set such a powerful precedent for traffic enforcement, namely data-driven conviction. However, the records must be completely tamper-proof or those most likely to violate the law will simply disable them and go on operating their cars dangerously.

    Imagine if a policeman pulled a car over and simply put a detector next to the door to read maximum speed data over the prior minute: 75 mph. Your own car says you were speeding, ticket issued, no possible contention. With a little ingenuity, you could probably make figure out if the driver was out of their lane and hit a biker or if they had gone through a red light…

  • “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.”

    Hear, hear! I’ve been making that same argument amongst my colleagues and friends. Since, when did having a license to drive also mean you have a license to kill, whether by negligence or malicious intent? Isn’t negligence a form of malicious intent?

  • Charles, your argument seems to be more about the incompetence of crash investigators, whose speed estimates were 34% off the recorded speed, than about the benefits of black boxes. The hypothesis that onboard data recording will keep reckless people from acting recklessly doesn’t make much sense. Most automobiles have speedometers that provide accurate, immediate feedback about how fast the vehicle is going.

    Doug’s willingness to give up his Fourth Amendment rights to help the cops enforce subjective laws is alarming, but kind of what I expect on Streetsblog.

    If you want to stop speeding, get the auto manufacturers to install 55-mph governors on all motor vehicles (to save energy, set the limit to 45 mph). If you want to stop dangerous motor vehicle crashes, set a maximum weight limit on all motor vehicles (heavy goods can be shipped by rail or barge). Frequent poster Gecko is on the right track here with his constant emphasis on the danger posed by overfast, overweight vehicles.

  • Larry Littlefield

    I am comfortable with electronic monitoring in public places and of potential dangerous activities provided that the records are only examined if there is probably cause and wiped out otherwise.

    A black box with one minute of data looked at after a crash with meets those criteria.

  • J. Mork

    “Charles, your argument seems to be more about the incompetence of crash investigators, whose speed estimates were 34% off the recorded speed, than about the benefits of black boxes.”

    I read it as the speed 4 seconds before impact was 106 mph, but the driver braked to 65-70 in a futile attempt to avoid the collision.

  • Lucy

    The 4th Amendment protects against unreasonable searches, not against searches based on finding evidence of a crime as part of the investigation after a crash. If you think that the information in your black box would incriminate you, then perhaps you should change how you drive.

  • People who operate heavy machinery for their livelihood, be it as a bus driver, train engineer, construction worker, etc. are subject to scrutiny beyond what we as Americans would typically be comfortable with from a civil liberties perspective. Operating a private automobile is just that: Operating heavy machinery in such a way that puts the general public at risk. Thus, I don’t see any reason as to why there should be a greater expectation of privacy when operating a private automobile, compared with operating a construction crane.

  • BicyclesOnly

    I agree with Larry’s common-sense argument on the privacy issue. I’ll add that the information recorded on the black box–speed, braking, signaling and steering activity–is not anything in the driver vould have a reasonable expectation of privacy. I don’t believe there is constitutional protection for private recordings of things that were done publicly.

    The fact that reckless motorists are not deterred from speeding by the availability of accurate real-time speedometer data is no argument against the potential efficacy of black boxes. People knowingly speed because they don’t perceive the risk to them of doing so. Create a means of swift certain punishment for speeding, and apply it, people will perceive the risk and act accordingly.

  • BicyclesOnly, why infringe upon civil liberties (to some degree) to punish for speeding, when a governor system could keep drivers from speeding altogether?

  • Lucy, I support your right to advocate for giving the government more tools to be used to selectively and subjectively enforce its laws, but I have to disagree with you about it being a good idea.

  • LN

    Here in NYC ‘blackboxes’ occur on every street corner, all the NYPD has to do is use them to investigate crashes – many of them belong to them anyhow. http://www.mediaeater.com/cameras/

  • Jonathan writes: “If you want to stop speeding, get the auto manufacturers to install 55-mph governors on all motor vehicles”.

    How will this prevent anything other than speeding along interstates? What about suburban neighborhoods? School zones? City streets? Twisty mountain roads?

  • The Fourth Amendment:
    “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

    Jonathan,

    With respect, how would black box technology violate a person’s right against unreasonable searches and seizures? The technology records data about the vehicle, such as speed, etc. — but these devices will not be recording driver behavior (buttering a bagel? talking on a cell phone?).

    Are black box devices on aircraft (which do record pilot conversations) similarly invasive of 4th Amendment rights?

    It seems to me that your personal privacy (what you are doing in the drivers seat of your own car, however stupid, ill-advised, or even illegal) would not being compromised by such a device.

  • David, your privacy extends throughout the car, to include whatever black box is mounted inside. In New York State this includes the right to be free of warrantless GPS tracking.

    Whatever rights commercial operators have to their privacy would depend on their contract of work; the 4th Amendment only limits the government.

  • Sean, the variable-speed-limit problem has already been solved.

  • Niccolo Machiavelli

    How about introducing some market incentives into the black-boxization of the automobile sector? I would gladly volunteer my black box info, even advance more such info that would monitor my driver behavior against a reduced insurance rate. I’m thinking many people would and those that wouldn’t would be singling themselves out for higher rates and greater scrutiny in the far off future when driver behavior matters.

  • Boris

    Niccolo,

    This is a great idea, but in order for it to work drivers have to be assured that their insurance rates will actually decrease. If car insurance companies start using any excuse for raising rates, the way health insurance companies do, black boxes won’t become very popular.

  • I don’t think there is an implicit right to privacy regarding what you are doing in plain sight of the public in an automobile. Remember that next time you pick your nose at a light. If a police officer got you on radar at 106 mph seconds before a crash or if a crash reconstruction set a speed as 100 mph based on damage to your car it is admissible. Likewise, I suspect the black box is admissible since it has been used in several convictions (Rochester, one in Florida) and to my knowledge, these have not been overturned on appeal using 4th Amendment grounds. If they have, someone should chime in.

    The difference between a working speedometer and a black box is that a motorist doesn’t think he will get caught speeding. If the black box is used as evidence in a crash investigation, I suspect this would be a strong deterrant to wanton speeding. Or, for that matter, driving a car with defective brakes (also indicated by a sensor, etc).

    If a governor is to be used, it would have to be managed via GPS since a single set speed would not make much sense. A car driven here in New Mexico would have to have a top speed set at 75 mph for our Interstates but still limited to 25 mph in our residential areas.

    Black boxes enforce accountability. There is precious little of that on our roads. And I’m a lifelong, card-carrying ACLU member, so civil liberties arguments are not lost on me.

  • Also, recall the 4th Amendment says “unreasonable” searches and seizures. Fifth protects against self-incrimination but one would have to say your car speaks for you. I am sure the Supremes could weigh in on this.

  • We have Collision Centres, where drivers are to go to file accident reports, within 24 hours after a collision. Wouldn’t a 60 second recording would be of little use after 24 hours, unless they are towed? A fender bender would normally not be towed, so the 60 second recording may not be of good use by then.

  • Peter Jfacobsen

    How odd this privacy concern. It arises with automated speed and red light enforcement, and again with event recorders that would become evidence after a crash.

    Notably, privacy concerns don’t arise with automated enforcing of on-street parking time limits and scanning license plate to identify stolen cars. In these situations, every license plate is scanned, not just those belonging to motorists observed violating traffic laws.

    It hard not to conclude that drivers arguing privacy are really just arguing against effective traffic law enforcement.

  • We saw the same “civil liberties concerns” with the congestion pricing cameras. But where was the concern for transit riders, who can now be tracked by their Metrocards, or for pedestrians who are now monitored by multiple closed-circuit cameras? Nowhere to be found.

  • Cap’n, I don’t like the idea that law enforcement can look at your own black box at any time without a warrant. That’s the idea I don’t like. Surely in the case of a fatal crash it would be trivial to get a warrant to examine any part of a motor vehicle involved.

    In addition, I am bemused at the conceit that there is a “good” police department that can be relied upon to interpret black-box data on the spot in a fair manner, and that this police department is different from the “bad” police department that, for instance, harasses Critical Mass riders, or refuses to ticket parked cars with bogus placards.

    In the quote from Lucy’s comment (#10 above) is the unspoken assumption that what you think is incriminating is the same as what the cops think is incriminating. Which cops, Lucy?

  • Jonathan, driving in New York is a privilege, not a right. You are entitled to constitutional protections when walking, cycling or taking transit, but not when operating heavy machinery.

  • maaaty

    An officer can handle reading a black box the same way he or she can handle holding a radar gun or administering a breathalyzer test. These are common duties of patrol units. Being commanded to “harass Critical Mass riders” calls into play entirely unrelated skills. Perhaps some officers would fulfill this vague charge with flying colors but the real question is, Why am I taking your bait?

  • We should be mindful that mandatory black boxes for cars might be followed by black boxes for bikes… I’m all for safety but we have to be careful what we wish for!

  • #24, Cap’n Transit, “Jonathan, driving in New York is a privilege, not a right. You are entitled to constitutional protections when walking, cycling or taking transit, but not when operating heavy machinery.”

    Excellent point that’s worth repeating!

  • Oh, the difficulties of using heavy machinery for basic transportation are enormous including insurance and now a black box which seems to be a good idea.

    It must be obvious to many that there are much better ways.

  • Steve Vaccaro

    Jonathan, good point on “good cop, bad cop.”. There is no “good judiciary” that will protect your constitutional privacy and travel rights in the form of privately- recorded public acts like speeding, that is separate from the “bad judiciary” that will uphold patently unfair police tactics designed to harass persons who violate no laws or commit petty traffic violations, as a means to punish their presumed associations with Critical Mass or other cyclists.

    We have installed GPS and we monitor the travels of cab drivers, on the rationale that commercial, seeing no constituional implication in monoitoring commercial travel.

    We accept the notion that an SBS passenger must create a printed record of their time and place of embarcation and produce it to a government inspector upon demand, on the rationale that it is a privilege, not a right to ride the bus and the privilege may be conditioned on giving up certain arguable rights to keep one’s travel activities private.

    We tolerate (those of us who are even aware) the creation of a cordon of NYPD video cameras that track every person entering or leaving Lower Manhattan, the perimeter of Central Park, and lord knows where else, all in the name of anti-terrorism.

    Our judiciary accepts the notion that a group of 50 pedestrians or cyclists traveling together must obtain advance permssion of their route, destination and other aspects of their activities, in the name of public order and convenience.

    Why is the privilege of driving so different that we can’t constitutionally require, as a condition to exercising it, that drivers agree to log their per se illegal and dangerous activities (like speeding) and produce the log to authorities for inspection?

    I really care about constitutional rights of privacy, but I’ve grown sick of the one-way street government has taken recently, where the constitutional rights of drivers to speed into pedestrianized time square in their tinted-window, explosives-laden SUVs are solicitously protected, but pedestrians are routinely videotaped by government simply walking on the sidewalk and cyclists have their bikes confiscated by police with no notice on the theory that any bike could be a pipe bomb … and there is barely a whisper of protest.

  • Jonathan, driving in New York is a privilege, not a right. You are entitled to constitutional protections when walking, cycling or taking transit, but not when operating heavy machinery.

    Cap’n, I too wish this was true, but I don’t see how wishing makes it so.

  • J. Mork

    I think the question is far from settled.

    There’s some precedents in the caselaw that might be applicable here:

    http://www.bicyclinglife.com/EffectiveAdvocacy/TheRightToTravel.htm

  • Ian Turner

    The way I understand it, the law is not requiring that you disclose the contents of your black box to law enforcement, only that it collect the data. There is no 4th amendment issue because the government is not searching or seizing anything, just requiring that the data be there. After an accident, or other event prompting probable cause of a crime, the government can collect and analyze the data. There is still no 4th amendment issue here because due process is followed in the searching of the data.

  • kaja

    > There is still no 4th amendment issue here because due process is followed in the searching of the data.

    Yeah you keep tellin yourself that.

    Have you people no sense for when the camel’s nose is underneath the tent?

  • Ian Turner

    Kaja, there really is nothing new here. You can write a letter to any business saying that you’re going to subpoena some records and they need to keep them until the subpoena is either issued or not. If they destroy the records anyhow, they’re now looking at an obstruction of justice charge. This is absolutely no different. Nobody is suggesting that the black-box data be shared with anyone in the absence of a specific reason why it would be needed.

  • I agree with Jonathan that the blackboxes will probably do nothing to prevent reckless driving or assaults on cyclists. While they may serve as tools to help prosecute dangerous drivers, we could start by actually prosecuting drivers for their assaults on cyclists with the laws we have on the books at present. Preferential treatment of motorists over cyclists is endemic in our culture, be it among the police, the judiciary, or average citizens. Focusing on changing the culture – not the technology, will go a lot further in the long run.

  • Kaja, that camel has been sleeping in our tent for years…

  • GPS sometimes gets things very wrong. I’ve heard of the GPS guiding system sending my parents onto LRT-only corridors, and seen it think the car is off-road when it clearly wasn’t.

    It can work only in two cases. One is if the system’s reliability is improved to the point that it can work in real time without randomly slowing down or stopping cars or forcing them to speed. The other is if it’s not in real time, but instead used as a black box in case of accidents.

  • flp

    funny how so many folks get so worked up about their constitutional rights being violated by a variety of data recording devices. what difference does it make when law enforcement barely bothers to properly investigate any motor vehicle crashes. auto drivers are all too often given the benefit of whatever pathetic doubt is left despite the clearly available evidence such as dents and breaks that so obviously scream reckless driving at speeds well above the speed limit and other manifestations of the laws of thermodynamics and whatnot that indicate utter failure to yield and so on and so forth. anybody ever watch any of the csi programs? despite what they show, its not rocket science, you know – and, no, you do not need or even have the ridiculous imaging they present to make it look cooler.

    as many of you already know, its not about the data collection folks, its what one does with it and law enforcement coddles auto drivers. those of you who drive, take it easy – you are safe for now. for now . . . .

  • CSI? Sure, there’s an accurate depiction of forensic science to you.

  • flp

    i’m being sarcastic. the basics is the same regardless of whether its real life or tv. its basic physical science, and all the evidence we need to prosecute reckless drivers is readily available and does not require fancy gadgets let alone black boxes. again, its just the basic law enforcement obstruction that hinders proper invesitigation.

  • If you are well insured on your vehicle, then there is no doubt in getting return against all crash parts.

  • Do you believe that computers should be required to keep undeletable data about your surfing habits and what files you have saved?

  • Ian Turner

    Alon, do you believe that computer users regularly kill tens of thousands and maim hundreds of thousands annually? If they did, and if keeping a record of a computer users’ last 60 seconds of activity would help assign blame in cases of death or serious injury, then yes, I would favor retaining that data.

    What was your point again?

  • No, I don’t think computer users kill people. However, I don’t think black boxes save people. According to Smeed’s Law, safety rules such as the black box are going to make people drive more carelessly, producing no net change in the death rate; the only way to reduce deaths from driving is to reduce driving.

    Assigning blame is irrelevant. It’s only useful if you’re a lawyer, or if you really don’t like some class of people and want them punished.

  • @ Alon Levy: I believe you’ve badly mixed up Smeed’s Law, risk compensation, and black boxes.

    The notion of risk compensation is that mechanisms that reduce the consequences to oneself of vehicle crashes naturally lead one to “push the envelope” and engage in riskier behavior. Thus, football helmets lead players to tackle more aggressively … and seat-belts and airbags lead drivers to drive more aggressively, increasing risks to pedestrians and cyclists who are not belted or bagged.

    I happen to subscribe to this notion in a general sense (whereas the Naderite safety crowd does not). Black boxes, however, do not fit into the rubric of risk compensation. A black box in your car will not reduce your vulnerability in the event of a crash. Thus, there is no a priori reason a black box should make you drive more aggressively. To the contrary, the knowledge that your aggressive and/or reckless driving could be verified, post-crash, and could lead to criminal penalties, should be expected to make you drive less aggressively.

    When I wrote about black boxes six years ago in my “traffic justice” prospectus (my original post has a pdf link to it, in the penultimate paragraph), I included this note about empirical validation:

    In a study conducted in the Netherlands in the late 1990s, commercial fleet vehicles equipped with event data recorders reduced crashes by 20 percent, presumably due to drivers’ understanding that it will be difficult for them to evade responsibility for carelessness behind the wheel.

    The link to that study in my pdf is defunct. This link should work. I’ll bet that more empirical validation of the efficacy of black boxes in reducing crash rates has emerged since then.

    PS: Smeed’s Law doesn’t really pertain here. Smeed intended it to apply to countries’ general path to automobility. Smeed would have scoffed at the notion that traffic-law enforcement couldn’t reduce crash rates.

  • wonder what Geo. Orwell would be writing if alive now ??? Instead of 1984 would it be something like “Obamanation 2008 through?” ?????

  • wonder what Geo. Orwell would be writing if alive now ??? Instead of 1984 would it be something like “Obamanation 2008 through?” ?????

  • Shojib Ashrafi Na Ashrafi

    Well, If you believe in what you write here, lets agree for an IMPARTIAL INTERNATIONAL INVESTIGATION as a sane person rather than BIASED BASHING on the Freedom Fighters Tamil Tigers wothout blaming the racist Srilanka who did the Genocide and deny access to any Independent media let alone an independent investigation.

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