Q & A: Joan Claybrook

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As the head of NHTSA during the Carter Administration and now the president of Public Citizen, Joan Claybrook has been at the forefront of efforts to improve auto safety over the past few decades. With NHTSA due to issue new rules concerning black boxes for cars, Claybrook spoke to TIME's Margot Roosevelt about why she thinks the requiring all cars to have data recorders is such a good idea — and why the privacy concerns are being overblown

TIME: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is about to issue rules that will make it easier to track people's driving through so-called black boxes, or EDRs, in cars. That scares some people.

CLAYBROOK: More than 40,000 people die each year on the highways. Data from event data recorders (EDRs) is crucial for safety engineers. The EDRs record only a few seconds of data if a crash occurs — otherwise they continually erase the data they register. NHTSA proposes to standardize some of the elements that an EDR records. Also, automakers don't have the same downloading systems, but there should be a standard system.

T: Most Americans don't know they have black boxes in their cars. Is that a problem?

C: Yes. Manufacturers should notify consumers that their vehicle contains an EDR and indicate what the EDR records and how the data will be used.

T: You have some gripes with the rules?

C: The government allows manufacturers to choose whether or not they equip their vehicles with EDRs. Instead, they ought to be required in every passenger car, pickup truck and SUV. Without fleet-wide penetration, there are gaping holes in the data that engineers need to improve safety, both for motor vehicles and highways. For instance, it's difficult to track a defect if only a fraction of vehicles with the defective part are equipped with EDRs. NHTSA should also require that all EDRs record the data identified in its "top ten" list of EDR data elements.

T: The ACLU says that black boxes in cars are part of a "surveillance monster." And that police departments and insurance companies will be gathering more and more data on people's driving habits. Does this worry you?

C: In our view, privacy is a non-issue. The device in cars doesn't begin recording until seconds before a crash. There's no ongoing recording.

T: Privacy experts say it is only a matter of time before the police start setting up random checkpoints, like DUI checkpoints, to plug into people's black boxes and check for speeding violations.

C: I think that's far-fetched. But the threat that black boxes will morph into a continuous system is less likely if you have a regulation which doesn't allow that. I prefer to have a federal regulation that says [to automakers], ‘You can only do this' — rather than let them do what they want on own. Once companies put in their systems, they are not going to want to pay for retooling.

T: Progressive Insurance already gives people recorders for their cars and offers lower rates based on six months of black box data. Some say that eventually people won't be able to get insurance unless they reveal their black box data.

C: This is a voluntary program. The idea that insurance companies will spend money to monitor speed is ludicrous. They are very, very cheap. And, they already have records on everything about you — your credit record, whether you've had crashes.

T: Black boxes are being used in court cases to convict people of criminal driving offenses. Good or bad idea?

C: EDR data can also protect people against false accusations, miscalculations, poor investigations and inaccurate witnesses.

T: Does having black boxes in their cars make people drive more safely?

C: Not necessarily. Most people will eventually forget that they are there.

T: Ten states have passed bills that limit access to black box data without permission from the car owner or a court order. Your thoughts?

C: If there's any litigation, EDR data will be subject to discovery.

T: Public Citizen has sued the Bush Administration to require black boxes in trucks. What's the big deal?

C: Tired truckers are responsible for up to 40 percent of large truck crashes. Truck crashes kill over 5,000 people and injure over 100,000 annually. There is practically no enforcement of the regulations which limit the number of hours a trucker may be on the road. Currently, driving hours are recorded by the truckers themselves in paper logbooks. They call them 'comic books' because they are so easily forged. They keep one log for police and another for their company to get paid. Black boxes that record the number of hours a trucker has driven would greatly improve enforcement. Unlike the ones for cars, these black boxes for trucks operate continuously. Some companies install them voluntarily.