Data-recording systems in vehicles used to aid in crash investigations

2012 law requires U.S. market vehicles install data-recording systems

By Joel Eisenbaum - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Modern passenger cars collect massive amounts of data that can be used against drivers in court, whether drivers consent to the data collection or not, Channel 2 Investigates has discovered.

"It's like Big Brother is always watching," Jim Adler, a well-known accident attorney, said.

A 2012 federal law requires auto manufacturers to install data-recording systems in cars destined for the U.S. market for the purpose of aiding in crash investigations.

[READ: GM sample of collected data]

Texas law states the collected information belongs to the vehicle's registered owner, but can be obtained for a variety of reasons by court order.

The information is most often used for crash analysis.

"We've had cases where someone says they were alone, but the data shows they were not alone," said Dirk Smith, an engineer with Houston-based Rimkus Consulting Group.

Event data recorders are required to retain only five seconds of information before a crash, and most only record just that much, Smith said.

"It doesn't retain the information unless there is an event," Smith said.

The device is part of the airbag control system in modern passenger cars.

"I don't recommend trying to disable it. It is part of the car's safety system," Smith said.

The devices are required, by law, to collect certain data points, like vehicle speed, airbag sensor information and whether seatbelts are fastened, to name a few categories.

But some manufacturers add many more data collection points, including whether tires are properly inflated and how much pressure is being put on the seat, which could indicate a passenger and weight range. 

Some devices also record how far back the driver seat is positioned, which could indicate the approximate size of the driver.

"They're not as sophisticated as black boxes on airlines, where thousands of lives are at stake?, but they get a lot of information," Adler said.

Adler said the boxes have worked both for and against his clients in court.

The trend is that the boxes will continue to become more sophisticated and are expected to collect dozens more pieces of information in the next five years.

Currently, the electronic data-recorders in passenger vehicles do not collect GPS location information, but a provision in Texas law has already approved such use as long as it is being used to more quickly dispatch emergency services.

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