The Toronto Star
April 21, 2014
It was the "black box" in Brooke Melton's 2005 Chevrolet Cobalt that pointed an independent engineer to a defective ignition switch as the cause of her fatal crash four years ago.
Melton's parents settled a lawsuit against General Motors (GM) in September 2013. But the Georgia nurse's tragedy came to light last month after GM recalled 2.6 million small cars, including 235,000 in Canada, citing the defective switch. The recall included the kind of Cobalt 29-year-old Melton was driving.
GM has acknowledged the defective switch played a role in 31 crashes and 13 fatalities, including one in Canada.
But many more owners of recalled GM cars are now wondering if the faulty switch caused their unexplained accidents.
Melton's case has also shed light on the role black box data can play in crash investigations.
Similar to the kind of black box used to investigate airplane crashes, "event data recorders" in cars can show what speed the vehicle was travelling, whether the brakes were applied, or the air bags deployed.
But unlike airplane black boxes, the data in cars is not nearly as comprehensive or accessible as safety advocates would like.
Traffic safety regulators, law enforcement agencies and insurance companies see black boxes as a potential tool to make cars safer and settle disputes.
When complaints about sudden acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles peaked in 2009 and 2010, black box data prompted U.S. safety regulators to conclude the problem was sticky gas pedals and faulty floor mats, not a defect in the electronic throttle control system.
But privacy advocates fear the data could be misused and are seeking limits on who can access it.
For drivers, the data could be a mixed blessing when it comes to insurance claims, lawsuits, and criminal charges, depending on whether it supports or refutes their version of what happened in a crash.
A Montreal man was sentenced to 18 months in jail in 2004 when the black box in his vehicle contradicted his testimony in a fatal crash.
In 2011, then Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray claimed he wasn't speeding and that he was wearing his seat belt when he crashed a government-owned car. The data recorder in the Ford Crown Victoria told a different story.
U.S. safety regulators are now pushing to make such boxes mandatory in all new cars and light trucks before the end of 2014.
The "event data recorder" would capture valuable safety-related data in the seconds before and during a crash, the U.S. Department of Transportation noted. That includes the vehicle's speed, whether the brakes were applied immediately before the crash and whether seatbelts were worn.
The boxes have been around since 1996. GM was the first to install them, chiefly to monitor the performance of its airbags.
By 2013, nearly all cars and light duty trucks were equipped with recorders, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated in late 2012.
That includes cars sold in Canada as North American auto manufacturing is highly integrated.
The recorders do not collect any personal information, record conversations or run continuously, the agency said. Unlike black boxes on airplanes, recorders in cars capture only the last few seconds before a crash or air bag deployment.
But some privacy advocates oppose what they see as potentially unfettered use of a growing range of data collected by onboard computers about drivers' behavior.
The proposed U.S. Driver Privacy Act would limit the data's use to federal safety investigations, and traffic safety research provided any personal information is redacted. Other uses would require the owner's consent or a court order.
In Canada, black box data is made available to third parties, such as insurance companies, only if the vehicle owner agrees to it or the courts issue a subpoena, said Lewis Smith, a spokesman for the Canada Safety Council.
Automakers initially argued black box data belongs to them. But the courts have disagreed, saying the data belongs to the vehicle's owner.
Automakers still control access to the data through their proprietary encryption keys. The courts are now looking at whether the data should be more accessible, Lewis said.
Insurers in Canada rarely get access to black box data, said Pete Karageorgos, a spokesman for the Insurance Bureau of Canada.
"There are privacy issues," he said. "And in any case, some dealers can only read their own products so again insurers can't access the data or they have to do it through the manufacturer."
In the GM ignition switch recall, it's unclear whether black box data would be helpful in all cases, said Tony Faria, a professor with the Odette School of Business at the University of Windsor.
GM has limited its liability to cases where the air bags didn't deploy, he noted.
"It wasn't immediately recognized that there was a connection between the ignition switch being in the accessory or sometimes off position, and the air bags not deploying," Faria said.
"I don't know if a data recorder would have provided that information. The air bags are supposed to stay live even if the vehicles engine has stopped."
The air bags, which in some cases didn't deploy, are supposed to remain live even if the vehicle's engine has shut off, he said.
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