By: Mario Palermo of Palermo Law Group
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is on the verge of mandating that all vehicles be equipped with an “event data recorder,” the automobile equivalent of an airplane’s black box. An automobile’s black box is designed to preserve certain data for several seconds prior to an airbag deployment, or in some cases, a near deployment. Today’s event data recorders (EDRs) typically record information regarding the wheel speed, steering input, brake input, seatbelt usage and the timing of airbag deployment.
Some have voiced concerns that black boxes in automobiles can lead to an invasion of privacy. For example, a state trooper pulls you over, downloads data from your vehicle’s black box and issues a citation for speeding. However, the dirty little secret is that many manufacturers have equipped vehicles with black boxes for over two decades. In other words, the horse is already out of the barn. Whatever privacy concerns folks have, there is no denying that information contained in a vehicle’s black box can provide invaluable forensic evidence in reconstructing an accident. Thus, it is important to contact an attorney knowledgeable in this technology as soon as possible after an accident to ensure that irreplaceable evidence is not destroyed.
Data downloaded from black boxes can help you win your case in a variety of ways. For example, black boxes in automobiles are particularly useful in providing clues as to whether the driver was asleep prior to the crash. If the black box data shows that there was no brake or steering input prior to a head-on collision, this can provide circumstantial evidence that the driver was asleep. Fatigue is a factor in many trucking accidents where truck drivers have been known to work longer hours than allowable under federal regulations. Automobile black box data is also a useful tool in determining the speed of a vehicle leading up to an accident. When it comes to motor vehicle collisions, there is no question that excessive speed kills. However, witnesses, especially the other driver, are unreliable when it comes to evaluating the speed of a vehicle. Black box data can be your unbiased expert witness regarding speed! In some tragic cases, when the driver is killed, black box data may be the only witness a family can call upon to set the record straight.
I will never forget the day I met with the family of a 48-year-old woman who was killed after she hit a pole in a parking lot on a rainy day. The woman’s husband could not figure out why his wife died despite the fact the airbag deployed and she was not driving very fast. This case was featured in the Chicago Tribune as it was one of the first cases where black box data was used in litigation. The hypothesis was that the airbag did not deploy in a timely manner. If the airbag located inside the steering wheel does not deploy extremely rapidly following a collision, the driver’s head can get too close to the steering wheel before the airbag deploys. Automobile manufacturers are aware that if this happens, the consequences can be fatal. Fortunately, the black box data had not been destroyed and an accident reconstructionist hired by my firm was able to access the pick-up truck’s black box. Using data downloaded from the black box, we were able to prove that the airbag did, in fact, deploy too late. Medical experts retained by my firm were able to show that the late deployment was a factor in causing the driver’s decapitation.
Thus far, courts in Illinois, New Jersey and New York have determined that data downloaded from a vehicle’s black box is reliable enough to be used in court. It does not appear that any court has refused to allow black box data to be used during a trial. The trend of allowing black box data to be used at trial will likely continue as vehicle computers become more sophisticated and black boxes are equipped in all vehicles.
It is important for families to realize that vehicles involved in crashes are a significant source of evidence. Steps should be immediately taken to preserve the vehicle involved in a collision. If the data that is recorded during a crash event is not immediately downloaded, it will eventually be written over and lost. Accident reconstructionists have the software necessary to download the data from many automobile manufacturers’ black boxes. Some car makers guard their proprietary software and it will consequently be necessary to obtain a court order to download the information. Immediately taking steps to preserve the evidence is vital. Unfortunately, many grieving families are understandably focused on the sudden loss of a loved one and unwittingly allow vital evidence to be destroyed.
Whether we like it or not, the time is coming where all vehicles will be equipped with “black box” computers. Data downloaded from black boxes can provide forensic evidence to provide insight as to why a crash occurred. The key is to understand that this information exists and use it for your benefit. If you or a loved one is involved in a serious collision, hire an attorney with expertise utilizing black box data right away to ensure that your unbiased expert witnesses’ data is not erased.