Data Recorders in Cars

By Julie Montanaro
March 9, 5:40pm

New cars come with a lot of bells and whistles these days, but you may not know most of them also come with a black box, a data recorder similar to those in airplanes, that can reconstruct the final seconds before a crash.

Deputies recently extracted a black box from a Chevy truck involved in a deadly Valentine's Day crash. It can tell them exactly what happened behind the wheel in the five seconds before impact.

DEP Lonnie Seay with the Leon County Sheriff's Office Traffic Unit says it can tell them a multitude of things.

"The speed five seconds prior to impact, whether they had their seat belt on, how many people were in the car depending on the position within the car, where they were sitting and the amount of throttle they were using, the amount of braking they were using. It gives us all kinds of information."

Many people don't realize that a black box is built in to most new cars. Car makers aren't required to tell customers about it and we had a hard time finding an insurance agent or a car salesman who knew which cars had it and which ones didn't.

Michael Futrell, Truck Manager at Champion Chevrolet, has been in the auto business for about 31 years.

Has anyone every asked you about these black boxes?

"No, no, I don't think it's really public knowledge."

Motorists Sharon Brock had no idea her car had one.

"You mean there's one in every car? Or is this something you would have installed?"

Joanne Stewart didn't realize her car had a black box either, but she's glad.

"I think it's a great idea. It's kind of like the airplanes that have the black boxes, so we'll be able to tell exactly what happened and when."

While some like that permanent record, others consider the CDR, or crash data retrieval box, tantamount to big brother under the hood, collecting information which could be used against you.

AAA doesn't object to the data recorders, but it does have some reservations, says assistant division manager Brenda Smith.

"It's the property of the vehicle owner and they should only release that information, for example, to an insurance company or to law enforcement if they're willing to do that with their full consent because it is their property."

Deputies tell us a car's airbag has to deploy in order to activate the recorder, so it's not continuously charting your driving habits, it's only making an imprint in the event of a serious crash.

Leon County Deputies say they usually ask the car owner for permission to extract the black box, but otherwise they have to get a search warrant for it. By 2008, car makers will have to tell buyers if their new car has a black box, and by 2010, the black boxes have to record 15 key pieces of information.