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Black Box Backlash

February 17, 2013, 9:55 PM by Perry Groten

Black Box Backlash
SIOUX FALLS, SD -

Sioux Falls police used a high-tech tool as part of their investigation into last Thursday's deadly crash at 41st and Minnesota.

The device, installed in many newer vehicles, works much like the black boxes in airplanes, that provide valuable information to investigators looking into the cause of a crash. But these black boxes are standard equipment in most new model vehicles and very few drivers know about it.

"Bottom line: they don't know it. They will now," Steve Carnes of Steve's Auto Repair in Tea said.

Event Data Recorders, or EDRs, have been around for decades as a key component in deploying air bags.  But now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants them in all new vehicles by 2015.

"Car manufacturers put them in there to help give them input to make the cars safer," Carnes said.

EDRs store information like how fast a car was traveling, whether brakes were applied and if seat belts were in use at the time of a crash.  They're installed inside a tamper-proof casing, often in the floor of a vehicle.

"You can't alter it, to my knowledge, if you want to erase what you are doing at the time," Carnes said.

Sioux Falls police can retrieve the information stored in the EDRs to help them find the cause of traffic crashes. They uploaded data at the scene of last week's deadly crash at 41st and Minnesota.

"It's certainly a valuable tool, but in and of itself, it's not something where we go in and image the data and then rely solely on that to do our crash reconstruction," Bret Hamlyn of the Sioux Falls Police Dept. said.

But Carnes sees promise in EDRs making cars safer. Although he worries that these automotive versions of black boxes create a legal gray area.

"My concern with this information would be how it's used and who owns that information," Carnes said.

Car companies say the data inside the recorders belong to the vehicle's owner.  So, police often seek a court order to the data if they plan on filing charges.

"We'll seek permission from the owner and just to be safe rather than sorry, we'll get a search warrant in those episodes we think we need to," Hamlyn said.

Carnes say EDRs, like any other car part, can malfunction, leading to faulty data.

"The last thing you would want is a car showing you were doing 180 miles per hour when you can't even do 180," Carnes said.

But police say their bigger concern isn't with faulty data, but no data at all.

"If you're involved in a significant enough crash where the power is interrupted before you can store any data, nothing will be there or incomplete data will be there," Hamlyn said.

As the technology keeps improving, there's no telling what these black boxes will reveal in the future.

"You know, Big Brother's watching to some degree. So be careful what you say and what you do," Carnes said.

And to some, black boxes are a technological trade-off between safer cars and cars that might be spying on you.

Some privacy rights groups want the federal government to ensure that the data collected from these black boxes does not extend to any more than a few seconds before the crash. They're concerned that the black boxes will lead to long-term monitoring of vehicles by law enforcement.

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