The Car and Truck Fleet and Leasing Management Magazine

Using Black Boxes to Increase Fleet Safety & Driver Productivity

July 2005, by Chad Simon

Event data recorders (EDR) — a simple device used to reconstruct accident parameters or an invasion of driver privacy? In a recent manslaughter case in Northern Kentucky, a man was pulled over by police but then sped off, leading to a pursuit that resulted in the officer’s fatal crash. Prosecution is attempting to retrieve EDR information from the suspect’s vehicle to help convict him at trial.

However, some attorneys argue that data collected from EDRs (also called “black boxes”) may invade a driver’s privacy if he or she is not aware of the EDR’s presence in the vehicle. One attorney says black boxes are an infringement of a person’s Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Who are the Major Players?

On average, the use of event data recorders in fleet can reduce collisions by 20-30 percent, according to Rusty Haight, traffic collision reconstruction expert. He argues that by installing a passive device (the EDR), an active component is created (drivers’ awareness of their behavior). In other words, drivers consciously alter their driving habits because they are aware of the EDR’s presence in the vehicle.

General Motors was the first to use an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) black box in its vehicles, says Kathleen Konicki, director of associate safety at Nationwide Insurance Co. in Columbus, Ohio.

Since the early 1990s, black boxes have been installed in GM vehicles in association with the airbag system. Most GM vehicles today are equipped with EDRs, she says, and according to, 20 percent of 2005-model year vehicles offer a version of EDR as standard equipment or an option.

"Ford has only been competing in the EDR market for the past few years, and DaimlerChrysler still does not play in that field," says Konicki. According to a recent Associated Press article, 15 percent of the nation’s 200 million passenger vehicles today are equipped with black boxes.

Nationwide Insurance Uses an Aftermarket Black Box

Nationwide’s Konicki is a proponent of fleet EDR use. She says that for three years, Nationwide’s fleet of 5,900 Ford passenger cars, minivans, and SUVs have been equipped with aftermarket black boxes.

“The overriding objective was to try to understand the relationship between crash forces and bodily injury,” says Konicki. “We also wanted to study whether or not there was in fact a ‘halo effect’ for fleet car drivers. Did they change their driving behaviors because there was a black box in the car?”

Most EDRs are designed to measure driver performance and behavior leading up to an accident, including seat belt use, throttle position, velocity change, abrupt braking, steering wheel angle, and accelerator pedal position. In the aftermarket, data can be configured by the fleet manager to record only desired information.

Law enforcement agencies, insurance companies, lawyers, judges, vehicle manufacturers, and officials of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety can all access information collected from EDRs, with a vehicle owner’s permission, according to Konicki’s National Association of Fleet Administrators (NAFA) Fleet Management Institute (FMI) presentation.

Independent Witness, Inc., (IWI) the maker of Nationwide’s aftermarket EDR of choice, provides velocity change information — the primary data point Nationwide’s fleet administrators were interested in studying, says Konicki. IWI’s black box is the only one that meets the JS211 standard, a technical specification that certifies performance, she explains. Konicki predicts a 30-50 percent reduction in frequency of crashes among drivers whose vehicles are equipped with black boxes.

“I think driver perception is that we are monitoring behavior when in fact we’re not because the box only truly records crash forces,” she says. “Because that perception is there, I think they tend to drive a little more carefully.”

Nationwide Insurance has had approximately 100 accidents involving vehicles in which black box information was retrieved and downloaded, says Konicki. By downloading crash data, the company populates a database to draw relationships between crash forces and other parameters, including bodily injury and material damage.

“Each one of those incidents has told us something different because every set of circumstances surrounding a crash is unique to that event,” says Konicki.

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