By any interpretation of the numbers, cars are unsafe. Worldwide, someone dies in a vehicle accident each minute, and there have been more than 30 million global motor vehicle fatalities since 1896. In the United States, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has said that motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for people between the ages of three and 33. Despite huge advances in active and passive safety, such as better tires, anti-lock brakes, pre-tensioning seatbelts, energy-absorbing chassis, and airbags, motor vehicle accidents in this country result in a disabling injury every 14 seconds and more than 100 fatalities a day. Safety engineers battle these statistics to save lives, but until recently what went on in a real-world crash was a largely a matter of conjecture.
Just the factsA vehicle accident is an incredibly brutal event. In less time than it takes to blink, forces are generated that can rip apart the most robust steel and composite structures and permanently change lives. Although safety researchers have performed crash tests for decades to better understand these forces in a collision, the quiet installation of Event Data Recorders (EDR), beginning with General Motors vehicles around 1997, has provided dramatic real-world data to improve everything from vehicle structural design to improved emergency medical response to better design for our roadways. They've even found their way into racecars to help improve a driver's chance of survival in a severe accident.
Safer cars. Safer drivers?The information from EDRs has been used to make automobiles safer, but has also been used in court by both prosecuting and defense attorneys to disprove or prove a driver's claims of innocence. EDR systems record several dozen inputs including speed, acceleration, driver input, seatbelt use and the crash signature in the several seconds before and after a collision. The information is constantly overwritten in its memory unless a crash occurs, in which case it is stored. Although EDR systems have been around for a while, their use by car companies has been voluntary. Ford began installing the EDR devices in 2001, while the only European vehicle with such a device is the 2005-06 Saab 9-7X, which is really just a rebadged Chevrolet product.
The use of EDR data in court cases immediately brought charges that Big Brother was illegally monitoring our driving activities. In 2004, California became the first state requiring car manufacturers to notify customers whether a black-box EDR was installed. The law also prohibits downloading of data without a court order or permission of the vehicle owner. For 2008, NHTSA has proposed that all vehicles with EDR systems collect their data to a standard to be established by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). EDR systems won't be mandatory yet, but strong support by the insurance industry is an indication that it's only a matter of time.
What's next?If the inclusion of data recorders that monitor our driving makes civil liberty advocates uncomfortable, then the conspiracy theorists are apoplectic. Already wary of systems like General Motors' widely advertised OnStar that can track vehicle location and communicate with onboard systems, it doesn't seem like a huge leap to imagine systems that can automatically issue e-tickets to those who exceed the speed limit or drive recklessly.
Some drivers are voluntarily subjecting their driving to such scrutiny, in the interest of lower insurance premiums. Progressive Insurance's TripSense program started in Minnesota, but is now going nationwide. It provides a plug-in data recorder that attaches to the OBD-II port under the dashboard. Drivers record their driving habits for several months and then, after reviewing the data on a home computer, can upload the information to Progressive and receive discounts of up to 25 percent on their next insurance premium. TripSense monitors how much, how fast and at what time of the day you drive, the number of sudden starts and stops you make, and how much time you spend driving faster than 75 mph. Using this information, Progressive can offer an insurance discount if it approves of your driving habits. The company is adamant that any data from its TripSense program showing you to be an aggressive driver won't be used to raise insurance premiums. The company claims the data you provide is private, but ominously notes in its website that: "We may be legally obligated to provide such information in response to a subpoena or as otherwise required by law."
The state of the artThe idea that the government could track your whereabouts and watch your driving seems a bit paranoid. You'd think government agencies have better things to do with their black helicopters and special-ops guys than to follow around a few speeders. On the other hand, with almost daily news reports of government domestic surveillance and illegal wiretaps on telephones, it's not hard to see how people could be uneasy. It's already possible to track with some accuracy the locations of cell phones, and many new models include Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) technology. More and more vehicles are equipped with navigation systems that can use GPS to pinpoint their location, and GM's aforementioned OnStar has made its reputation by continuously monitoring vehicles to detect airbag deployment. OnStar can assess the condition of a vehicle's safety system, remotely unlock doors and even monitor sounds from inside the vehicle.
Not all applications of such technologies have benefited the driver. Rental car companies have tried to use data-logging systems to identify customers who drive faster than posted speed limits and charge them extra, but courts in several states have disallowed such practices. Many over-the-road trucking companies use satellite uplink data systems to ensure their drivers don't drive too long or too fast, and positioning systems to help schedule trucks or locate them if they have been stolen. Is it such a big step to imagine a little black box in your car acting as an electronic tattle-tale about your driving habits? Or even the next step, intervening electronically to disable your vehicle until the police can come and arrest you?
The ends vs. the meansThe civil liberties of Americans has been a topic of serious discussion since this country's founding. Terrorism has brought into focus our government's role in protecting its citizens and the question of how much is too much interference. Look at the number of fatalities and injuries caused by motor vehicle accidents each year, and it's not hard to play the same "ends justifies the means" game using technologies like electronic data recorders and global positioning satellites to keep us safe from ourselves. For most of us, driving is about the freedom to make choices: Where will I go? Which route will I take? Should I pass this truck now? How fast do I want to drive? The Big Brother technology that watches your driving and takes action to prevent you from injuring yourself and others not only exists, it is for the most part already installed in your automobile. There is no doubt EDR systems have helped engineers and social scientists learn more about accidents to help build better cars and highway systems that keep us safer. It is up to us to make sure this remains the goal of such systems and that the focus doesn't shift to punishing us for the choices that we make.
The data recorders are actually a spin-off of the On-Board Diagnostic (OBD-II) network, required on new vehicles since 1996. The OBD-II system stores emissions-related data and some vehicle operating information to aid a mechanic in diagnosing problems. At the same time, airbag systems became significantly complex, requiring accelerometers and sensors that helped define the characteristics of a vehicle during a collision. General Motors was the first to take the next step, adding "black-box" data recorders to record information just prior to and during a crash.