Black box along for the ride; Computer chip documents motion, events.
They are about the size of a pack of cigarettes, a high-tech piece of equipment that looks like a motor vehicle ashtray turned upside down.
While many cars no longer have ashtrays under their dashboard, most cars built in the past decade contain an event data recorder, more commonly known as a black box.
The EDR, a computer chip that is part of a vehicle's air bag control module, activates in a damage-causing accident and records information such as speed, braking distance and whether occupants are wearing seat belts. There is some debate on who should have access to that information.
The "black box" has been in the news recently.
EDR data from the 2007 Ford Crown Victoria Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray crashed on Interstate 190 last November showed the car was traveling more than 100 mph before it left the highway, hit a ledge and rolled over.
The former Worcester mayor isn't the first public official involved in an accident in which the black box provided details. Former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine was seriously injured in an April 2007 crash in which the black box recorded a speed of 91 mph in a 65 mph zone. Unlike, Mr. Murray, Mr. Corzine was not driving.
At approximately 4.5 inches-by-1.5-inches, EDRs are usually made of metal and frequently located under the center console of a car or truck, although the water-resistant equipment can also be found under the dashboard or in a secure location in a vehicle's floor.
"Where they are located depends on the make of the automobile," said W.R. Haight, director of the Collision Safety Institute in San Diego.
Mr. Haight, who said he has been in the accident reconstruction business for 32 years, gave a 40-hour course last week to 25 state troopers at EMC Corp. in Franklin, discussing EDRs and the equipment that converts raw data into a printout that investigators can use to determine the cause of an accident.
"He's a pioneer in this field," said state police Lt. Andrew S. Klane, section commander in the state police's collision analysis and reconstruction section.
Mr. Haight is scheduled to give the same course next month at the Worcester Police Department to local police officers, insurance investigators and others.
Lt. Klane said information gathered by an EDR has proven helpful in determining the circumstances surrounding a car accident. He also said he had investigated cases where an EDR has provided information that led to a conviction as well as an exoneration of a driver.
"The EDR is a piece of the investigative puzzle," he said. It can be obtained by law enforcement officials by subpoena in a criminal investigation.
"It's one tool that we use in determining the cause of an accident," said Northbridge Patrolman Jeffrey White, who has taken several courses on accident reconstruction and the use of EDRs. "We use that information, as well as personal statements and evidence we see at the scene of an accident, in trying to determine the cause of an accident."
Others, however, view information gathered by an EDR as the property only of a motor vehicle owner.
"In general, the information from an EDR should be under the control of the owner," said Chris R. Ott, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union in Massachusetts.
When asked for comment, AAA Southern New England said in a prepared statement: "AAA strongly supports protecting the privacy of automobile owners whose vehicles are equipped with EDRs."
State police spokesman David Procopio also said EDRs are an important factor in accident investigations.
"They provide valuable information that when examined in conjunction with physical evidence and witness statements can give an overall picture of the cause of an accident," he said.
James O. Harris, owner of accident reconstruction specialists Harris Technical Services in Miami and Boca Raton, Fla., said news that the vehicle Mr. Murray was driving had an accident-monitoring black box probably caught many people by surprise. He said, for example, that people have known for years that planes, ships and trains that carry massive numbers of people have black boxes that contain far more data than EDRs in the family sedan or SUV.
According to experts, 75 to 90 percent of motor vehicles have some type of EDR.
One reason many people don't know they have an EDR is because there is no requirement the vehicle instruction manual list its existence. For example, while a 2005 Honda Accord has an EDR in its center console it doesn't state that in the car manual.
That is going to change with a federal law slated to take effect in September for all 2013 vehicles. While EDRs are not required under the new law, manufacturers have to meet 16 minimum data retrieval standards if they install them in a vehicle. The new law also mandates that information in an EDR must be placed in the vehicle's manual.
A spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said there was a possibility that federal legislation requiring EDRs be placed in all new motor vehicles may be introduced this spring in Congress.
Mr. Haight said privacy concerns are "a red herring."
He said an accident happens in public usually on a public street and the information gathered by an EDR is a snapshot of the circumstances leading to an accident that doesn't identify the driver.
"What about that is offending any civil liberties?" asked Mr. Haight.
Northbridge Patrolman White said an EDR records information that a person witnessing an accident would see.
Mr. Harris said the EDR records information leading to the deployment of air bags and the accident, or event, and nothing else.
"That has been the concern from people with privacy issues," he said. "It only records what occurs just before and during an accident, it doesn't say where you've been, what you're doing in the car or who is with you in the car."
Contact Bill Fortier by email at email@example.com.
ART: PHOTO; CHART
CUTLINE: (PHOTO) Northbridge Patrolman Jeffrey White demonstrates how data can be retrieved from a car's "black box" using a Bosch crash data retrieval system. A black box records information such as speed, braking distance and whether occupants are wearing seat belts. (CHART) Event data recorder
PHOTOG: (PHOTO) T&G Staff/STEVE LANAVA (CHART) T&G Staff/STACEY ARSENAULT
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|Title Annotation:||LOCAL NEWS|
|Publication:||Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)|
|Date:||Jan 31, 2012|
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