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 Edmunds.com, 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. [PAGEBREAK]

An Invasion of Driver Privacy?

Haight does not believe EDRs are an invasion of driver privacy.

“Roadway behavior is a public venue. There is no expectation of privacy so none of the information obtained from these systems is private,” Haight told the National Association of Fleet Administrators’ (NAFA) Fleet Focus e-newsletter.

Initially, however, most fleet drivers were skeptical when they learned their driving behaviors were to be monitored by risk management. Cloud 9 Shuttle drivers were no different.

At first hesitant, they quickly realized EDR use was to their benefit because the system helped them keep up with their vehicle’s regular maintenance. Drivers also have access to their own individual Web sites updating them on their vehicle’s condition, says Tom Elliott, fleet and safety manager for Cloud 9 — a transportation provider throughout San Diego County, Los Angeles, and Mexico.

Before actually implementing DriveCam — a video event data recorder mounted behind a vehicle’s rear-view mirror — into Cloud 9’s fleet, Elliott was given test units to run as a trial. Based on the results, drivers actually endorsed the idea of using the system throughout the company’s fleet. Drivers realized the cameras could be used to their advantage.

In accident investigations, they had undisputable proof of fault. Another advantage is that drivers can use data as proof that they were, or in some instances were not, at a particular location at a specific time, in the event a customer claims the driver didn’t show up.

“For example, one of our drivers was issued a traffic citation at the airport. He came in to me with the ticket, which was stamped at say, 10:25 a.m. I ran his vehicle’s information in the computer, and at 10:25, he was 15 miles away, going up the freeway,” says Elliott.

Cloud 9 also fields “How’s My Driving?” calls. If someone calls in to complain about a driver, Elliott can run a report to see if the driver was actually where he or she was reported to be.

“As long as drivers know upfront what’s happening, and they feel that they have some input in the situation, I don’t feel that using an event data recorder is a violation of driver privacy,” says Elliott. “We take a hands-off approach. Our intention is not for this to look like a ‘big brother’ thing, but if we see a van getting out of control, we have a tool to go after them and fix the situation.”

On the other hand, according to President John Hawkins, some Cloud 9 employees were angry about being visually monitored. One employee even took the matter to court where the supervision was ruled acceptable. One of DriveCam’s first customers, Hawkins said over time, accidents and vehicle maintenance were cut in half because “people quit driving over curbs, dips, and railroad tracks at mach speed. If every parent put a DriveCam in their teenage children’s cars, you can imagine the behavior change of how children drive with their parents in the car versus without them. So, employees don’t respond much differently.”

As a result of using cameras, behavior changed dramatically when the drivers were supervised, said Hawkins. Overall accidents and fuel efficiency were reduced because drivers were not in the wrong place at the wrong time by mistake. Since management was watching, workers’ compensation cases were also greatly reduced because drivers were generally safer, says Hawkins.

Prior to implementing DriveCam, Hawkins said Cloud 9 tried incentive-based safety programs that rewarded employees with money for safe driving, but to no avail.

“Having adult supervision in the vehicle really makes all the difference in the world. People’s behavior change significantly when they are watched.”

At Richmond Ambulance Authority, in Richmond, Va., drivers were at first skeptical about the idea of being monitored. However, shortly after installing the Road Safety International EDR, an accident occurred in which the other party claimed the ambulance did not use its emergency lights and siren before speeding through a red light, says Jerry Overton, executive director.

After pulling the real-time data from the computer, it was proven that the ambulance did use its lights and siren, and that it came to a full stop at the intersection. After this incident drivers were no longer hesitant about EDR use. Drivers for All-Star Limousine, based in Farmingdale, N.Y., were reluctant when DriveCam was first installed into the company’s 50 Lincoln limos until Tony Savarese, fleet safety director, explained how the camera could protect them and prove their innocence. “I basically tell my drivers, you live by the sword, and you die by the sword. If you’re right, it’s going to show you were right. If you were wrong, it’s going to show you were wrong.”

DriveCam has revealed instances in which drivers have picked up people who weren’t scheduled pick-ups and were caught, admits Savarese. “Our drivers are told, if you’re not doing anything wrong, there’s nothing to worry about.”

Concerning client privacy issues, Savarese explains that he is the only person allowed to view data captured by DriveCam.

In Framingham, Mass., Staples drivers were also initially reluctant about the idea of being recorded, says Phil Schweizer, national fleet safety manager for the company. “They all signed releases, and we followed up with surveys every three months, and at the end of nine months, it was all positive. When they realized they controlled what was recorded, anxiety was reduced greatly.”

Similarly, the use of EDRs in Nationwide’s fleet has been well received by the company’s drivers. “We structured the introduction of the program in a way that explained to drivers that we were interested in the research that the objective data we were about to obtain through looking at their crashes would provide,” says Konicki. “Once they understood the research we were doing and what we were trying to learn, drivers were very supportive.”

Yet to be verified is whether EDR data can be used against a company for negligent entrustment of a high-risk driver with a tainted electronic history of accidents and/or traffic violations. However, because any information surrounding a crash is “discoverable” in litigation, either the plaintiff’s counsel or defense counsel can subpoena records and data pertaining to the particular incident, according to Konicki. Rather than commenting in general on the black box driver privacy issue, Konicki’s stance is that the issue should be viewed individually on a case-by-case scenario. “There are many factors that impinge on the privacy issue that have to be taken into consideration.”

For instance, responding to an incident two years ago in Santa Monica, Calif., in which an 86-year-old driver mistakenly stepped on the gas instead of the brake, plowing through a farmer’s market, killing 10 people and injuring 63, NTSB investigators concluded that if a black box had been installed inside the vehicle, they would have been able to gain a greater understanding of the driver’s actions. As a result, NTSB officials are pushing for EDR installation in all vehicles. [PAGEBREAK]

Black Box Benefits and the GPS Misconception

The use of black box technology can help provide information about the mechanics and forces of accidents that previously have only been modeled based on accident reconstruction, says Konicki. “Knowing the actual crash forces and the result in terms of material damage and bodily injury will be helpful in reconstructing accidents and understanding those dynamics.”

A common misconception surrounding black boxes is that they are similar to global positioning systems (GPS), which unlike EDRs, constantly monitor driver behavior and location. EDRs, which record only data associated with a crash or an event — not the crash itself — and GPS can work in conjunction with one another, says Konicki, but independently, they are two entirely different tools.

Richmond and AMR Ambulances Practice Road Safety

With 28 vehicles, Richmond Ambulance Authority has been using Road Safety International aftermarket event data recorders in its ambulance fleet since 1993. The vehicle’s onboard computer records and downloads driver habit data, which is collected into a software program and analyzed by risk management, says Overton.

Data is recorded in real-time, so in the event of a collision, risk management can access RPM data, speed at time of impact, brake application, and emergency light and seat belt use.

Since implementing Road Safety, accidents per 100,000 miles have been reduced by more than 50 percent, says Overton. Not only do emergency medical technicians (EMT) know they are being monitored, but a driving program in association with the vehicle’s onboard computer enables EMTs to anticipate the ambulance’s surrounding parameters. By decreasing accident frequency, Richmond Ambulance Authority saves on the cost of vehicle insurance. Because EMTs changed their driving habits, the company recovered the cost of the device in two years through reductions in parts replacement and maintenance. As a result, vehicle lifecycles were extended from four to five years, says Overton.

10-Point Scoring System Helps Drivers Improve Performance

American Medical Response, Inc. (AMR), based in Denver, Colo., implemented Road Safety International into its fleet of 4,008 modified Ford Econoline vans in the mid-1990s to improve driver performance, says Ron Thackery, vice president of safety, risk management, and fleet administration.

A 10-point scoring system, with a level 5 the target level, helps drivers to improve their performance. According to Thackery, at a level 5, a driver issues one recordable incident (speed, braking, acceleration, seat belt use, etc.) every eight miles. When the system is installed in an operation that has never had any type of monitoring system in the past, nearly every driver performs at a level 1, which means the driver records an incident at least every mile.

“Road Safety helps an entire operation to achieve at level 5 performance in a 90-120-day period of time,” says Thackery. During operation, an audible speaker system alerts the driver when he or she is approaching a set parameter, such as excessive speed, and records that incident. “The system reinforces the organization’s expectations that we set for our employees and provides them with continuous feedback on how they are performing,” says Thackery. “The audible alert feature is one of the best things I’ve seen in the transportation industry because it provides feedback, allowing drivers to recognize their behavior and correct it.”

Road Safety has also helped AMR develop a next-generation safety concept ambulance as part of an effort to reduce safety risks in the emergency medical services industry. In addition to the black box, safety features include: special seating that allows two medics to be properly restrained with safety belts without compromising patient access, a collision avoidance warning system, and external caution lights that alert other motorists that medical treatment is being conducted aboard the vehicle.

“For backing up, a speaker system identifies any objects in the vehicle’s path and communicates the distance of those objects to the driver,” says Thackery. “Sonar systems are placed in the front grille that detect objects that come into the system’s range.”

A seatbelt monitoring system is installed in association with the vehicle’s airbag. A camera detects whether a person occupies a seat and whether the seatbelt is fastened, and determines which airbags to deploy, and at what level of force to deploy them. [PAGEBREAK]

The Future of EDRs

The future is uncertain surrounding the use of event data recorders. “NHTSA has introduced a proposed rule suggesting that if a car manufacturer is going to install an EDR in its vehicles, certain data must be recorded, and they stipulated what that data was,” says Konicki. This proposal leads to questions of whether the regulation will move forward and, more importantly, whether automakers will provide the NHTSA-requested data or configure EDRs to record the specified data. Konicki points out that automakers may even choose to opt out of the event data recorder business altogether.

“I think that’s going to be a discussion that goes on for several years.” Konicki sees the EDR issue splitting in different directions — one path for fleet and the other for the general public. For fleet, she believes EDRs provide a “real operating expense-reduction opportunity” causing fleet managers to outfit their fleets, if the cost is not prohibitive. The privacy issue is sidelined because the vehicles belong to the company, not the driver.

In the general public, however, the privacy issue has yet to be resolved and, according to Konicki, will probably be settled by case law. Speaking from her experience using EDRs, Konicki feels the benefits outweigh the costs, and the return on investment is rapid, depending on fleet size and overall operating expense. Cost-saving opportunities alone are enough incentive for fleets to implement an event data recorder system. Several insurance companies offer clients a discount, as has been the case for DriveCam clients.

“I tell insurance companies that they’re probably going to hate me when I send them the video and they say ‘no, at least we get the truth,’ ” says Savarese. Schweizer is such a proponent that he feels EDRs such as DriveCam will eventually become an option in fleet vehicles. Because EDR use helps extend a vehicle’s useful life, Overton believes it is a “win-win situation for everyone.”

Case Studies: Black Box Use Spreads to the General Public

Not only are fleets using black box tracking devices in vehicles, but parents are also installing them in their teenagers’ cars to keep tabs on their driving habits and set boundaries on how far and where the teen is allowed to drive. Parents can also determine whether the teen reaches the mutually agreed-upon destination.

As in fleets, EDRs record driver behavior including speeding, hard braking, reckless driving, distance traveled, etc., storing from several hours to several months of data. Depending upon the EDR company used and package purchased, parents can track their teen’s driving behavior in real-time, with alerts downloaded via cell phone or Internet.

One system even disables the car once it is parked so that the teen cannot drive the vehicle. A recent Wall Street Journal article reported a father and son shopping together for an EDR to monitor the son’s driving habits. The father’s hope was that his son’s behavior would improve since he knew he was being monitored.

One mother installed a GPS device in her son’s car without informing him to monitor his reckless driving habits, which have led to several accidents. She could also determine when he was driving somewhere outside predetermined boundaries.

“The problem is that most people don’t realize these devices are in their vehicle. That information can be used against you, and there’s no sort of regulation about who owns that information,” said Eric Skrum, spokesman for the National Motorists Association in Madison, Wis., to the American International Automobile Dealers Association (AIADA).

Other safety experts favor the use of black box data in police investigations but argue that black box data could be misinterpreted.

“The data can be misleading if you’re not a seasoned accident reconstructionist, so it needs to be interpreted and validated,” says Bob Kreeb, an engineer at Booz Allen Hamilton outside Washington, D.C., who helped set standards for data gathered from black boxes. However, data retrieved from black boxes has already been used in several court cases to convict drivers.

According to AIADA, a New York man was sentenced to five-15 years in prison for killing a woman after black box data in his vehicle revealed he was traveling 106 mph five seconds before the crash. Investigators previously had believed he was traveling between 65-70 mph.

In another case in St. Louis, a man was convicted of manslaughter after black box data from his vehicle showed he was traveling 85 mph before he rear-ended another vehicle.

A driver in Valparaiso, Ind., was recently charged with reckless homicide, among several other charges, after his car collided with another vehicle, according to the Web site, www.indystar.com.

Investigators said data collected from the vehicle’s EDR conflicted with the defendant’s testimony. Nevertheless, because up to several months of data can be captured, some worry that driving behavior several hours or even days ago could be used against them well after the fact.

“If a police officer pulls you over while you’re not speeding, will your EDR tell him that five miles or five days earlier you were speeding?” asks Bob Gritzinger in a recent AutoWeek magazine article. Some also feel that EDR use could spiral out of hand if not controlled.

“This is another example of where technology has outstripped the law and certain assumptions of how the world works,” says Jay Stanley, director of communications for the Technology and Liberty Project at the American Civil Liberties Union in New York.

According to AIADA, it has been alleged that some manufacturers use black box data to cancel warranties. “If this technology is not controlled, it allows powerful institutions to increase their control over ordinary individuals,” says Stanley.