Psst, Your Car is Watching You

An electronic snoop may be recording your driving. Is it a boon to safety or an invasion of privacy?

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It was nearly 11 on a balmy June night in Muttontown, a New York City suburb. Two teenagers raced fast cars down a tree-lined thoroughfare. The 19-year-old, home from freshman year at Tulane University, steered a new Mercedes with a license plate that read 4MRNICE. The 17-year-old, a high school junior, accelerated a two-year-old Corvette. At an intersection, within a second of each other, both cars smashed into a red Jeep, killing a nurse and her fiancé. At the hospital, one of the youths told a detective they were driving 50 m.p.h. to 55 m.p.h.

But unbeknownst to the teens and their families, there was a hidden witness to the race. A palm-size microcomputer, embedded in the Corvette's air-bag system, revealed that the car was traveling 139 m.p.h. The data, downloaded by police after the vehicle was impounded, convinced a grand jury to indict the youths on murder charges, based on "depraved indifference to human life." In the end, they pleaded guilty to manslaughter and assault, and are now serving a three-year prison term. "The minute the prosecutors had the speed from the 'black box,' they upped the charges to murder," says Richard Slade, whose son Blake was driving the Mercedes. "They had what they needed to force a plea down our throats."

Few Americans realize that their cars can tattle on them. But among those in the know--civil libertarians, law enforcement agents and consumer advocates--a debate is surging over the black boxes technically called event-data recorders (EDRs). While some welcome them as a safety measure, others fear them as an Orwellian intrusion. Nearly one-third of vehicles on the road today--and 64% of this year's models--contain the little-noticed chips and sensors. Unlike flight recorders on airplanes, these microcomputers don't capture voices, but they can retain up to 20 seconds of data on speed, braking and acceleration in the lead-up to a crash. For virtually all Ford and General Motors cars, and for a few models from other automakers, accident investigators can buy a modem-like device to plug laptops into EDRs and download the information.

This week, the Federal Government is expected to issue rules requiring automakers to standardize the recorders and make the information uniformly downloadable with commercial software. Thus, some manufacturers who have guarded black-box data as proprietary will have to make it accessible. In a nod to critics, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would also mandate that the devices be disclosed to car buyers.

The new regulations are likely to make the black boxes better known and therefore even more controversial. Some consumer advocates, such as Public Citizen's Joan Claybrook, want tougher rules compelling automakers to install EDRs in every car because objective crash data will lead to the design of safer cars and highways. Privacy activists want the government to prevent police and insurance companies from checking drivers' black boxes without permission. "We have a surveillance monster growing in our midst," says Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union. "These black boxes are going to get more sophisticated and take on new capabilities."

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