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Why Your Car’s “Black Box” Could Make All the Difference in Your Personal Injury Case

Why Your Car’s “Black Box” Could Make All the Difference in Your Personal Injury Case

The 1979 New Wave hit – Cars by Gary Numan – said it all: “Here in my car, I feel safest of all.” But nowadays drivers might feel a bit less secure, at least when it comes to protecting their personal privacy while motoring on Michigan’s scenic roadways. That’s because if your car, truck, or SUV was built after 2014 (and, for many models, several years before that!), it almost certainly has a built-in “spy” that’s been tracking your every move each time you turn on the ignition and hit the gas pedal. It’s an “event data recorder” (EDR) – more commonly known as a “black box” — a device akin to those the Federal Aviation Administration has long used to determine what caused tragic airline crashes.

Since their invention, these automated vehicular monitoring devices have made headlines for several reasons, not the least of which was last year when pro golfer Tiger Woods notoriously crashed his SUV and investigators sought its black box to see just how and why the accident had taken place. Let’s just say that what the EDR revealed didn’t help Tiger’s reputation as a safe driver – regardless of his skills hitting a golf ball with one!

Does My Car Have a Black Box?

If it was built within the past 10 years (or even far earlier in some cases) the answer is likely yes. For models manufactured after 2018, you can presume your car has an EDR, since 99 percent or more of all vehicles produced since then are equipped with black boxes. For older cars, trucks and SUVs, check this comprehensive list for your particular vehicle’s make, model, and assembly year. As you can see from the list, GM was at the forefront of the EDR movement, equipping some models with black boxes as early as 1994!

However, if you’re looking to locate your vehicle’s black box yourself, you’re probably out of luck. It’s not possible for just anyone to access your Black Box data. Accessing it requires a crash data retrieval system that can cost as much as $20,000 — and it must be plugged into the onboard diagnostic port under your dashboard. Your car’s manufacturer has access to this equipment, as does the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and law enforcement.

How Does a Car’s Black Box Work?

While you’re driving, the EDR is continually monitoring the motion and driving characteristics of your vehicle. But unlike the black boxes in aircraft, which record and store vast quantities of speed and elevation data as well as the voices of the cabin crew, your car’s system has far less memory capacity, so it’s limited in how much data it can hold and how long the data can be retained. You’ll probably be happy to know that it doesn’t record your voice – so you can feel free to keep shouting expletives at the irresponsible drivers you observe on your daily commute. And because it’s continually re-recording over older information while you’re driving, your car’s black box doesn’t permanently retain any data until a significant incident occurs to trigger the system. More on that in a moment.

What Type of Data is Recorded?

Despite its small memory size, quite a bit of information does get stored by the black box… but again, only when your vehicle is involved in a crash. Generally, the system records data while you’re driving but simultaneously overwrites older data due to its limited flash memory. Because of this, only about 5-10 seconds of driving data are actually being tracked at any given moment. Data is saved only when a collision (or near miss) registers on the black box sensors, which are usually components shared with your car’s airbag system. That also means that, if you attempt to tamper with or disconnect the EDR sensors, you’ll also possibly prevent your airbags from deploying when they need to protect you and your passengers in a crash situation. A very bad idea indeed!

So, what exactly does the EDR track? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) requires your vehicle’s EDR system to capture your vehicle’s speed at and just prior to the time of the crash; the degree to which you were stepping on the accelerator or the brakes; whether the driver and passengers were buckled into their seatbelts; whether the vehicle’s airbags deployed; if you were turning the steering wheel to avoid collision; and numerous other key data points that can pinpoint the causes of accidents and how the vehicle responded to the force of the impact.

Among other details about EDRs, Consumer Reports identifies the following data the NHTSA requires all automotive black boxes to capture:

  • The forward and lateral crash force
  • The crash event duration
  • Indicated vehicle speed
  • Accelerator position
  • Engine RPM
  • Brake application and antilock brake activation
  • Steering wheel angle
  • Stability control engagement
  • Vehicle roll angle, in case of a rollover
  • Number of times the vehicle has been started
  • Driver and front-passenger safety belt engagement, and pretensioner or force limiter engagement
  • Air bag deployment, speed, and faults for all air bags
  • Front seat positions
  • Occupant size
  • Number of crashes (one or more impacts during the final crash event)

Are There Benefits to Having a Black Box?

If you can get past the privacy concerns we’ve noted, there are very good reasons to be happy you have a block box. For instance, a number of insurance companies provide discounts for drivers willing to share their driving habits to prove they’re safe on the road. Insurers may even provide you with their own version of a black box – sometimes called a telematics system – that you can easily install to take advantage of the premium discount. Note that this particular kind of “black box” doesn’t replace your car’s original-equipment EDR system; it’s an entirely separate device.

Your insurance company’s telematic “black box” can be useful in other ways, too. For instance, if you’re a parent, you can use it to monitor the driving behavior of your teenage kids to ensure they practice responsible habits in the car. And some aftermarket black boxes also provide GPS location data, so law enforcement officers can more easily find your vehicle if it’s ever stolen.

Another key benefit: You can use black box data to prove you weren’t speeding and were wearing your seatbelt at the time of an accident – points in your favor if you’re making an accident claim in a legal scenario or filing a lawsuit against the careless driver who caused your injuries.

Of course, there are some potential drawbacks, which the National Motorist Association outlines in an article describing concerns that drivers could someday be ticketed if their black box indicates they were speeding. Or that EDRs or other telematics devices could share odometer readings with taxing authorities to evaluate how vehicles could be taxed based on usage.

Can I Get an Aftermarket EDR Installed in My Car?

Possibly. According to auto repair experts, a new black box unit is automatically installed each time a car’s airbags are replaced since it’s an essential component of the Supplemental Restraint System (a.k.a. airbags or SRS) in most vehicles. That being the case, if your vehicle has airbags but was built before black boxes were available, a highly trained automotive technician might be able to retrofit it with an aftermarket event data recorder. However, all cars are different, so you’ll need to check with a mechanic to verify your specific vehicle’s parameters. And if installing a black box isn’t feasible in your vehicle, it may be possible to enjoy some of the benefits of one by signing up for an insurance company’s telematics system, such as this one offered by the Michigan Farm Bureau Insurance Company.

Can Your Black Box Data Support a Legal Case?

Perhaps. If your personal injury claim requires proof of good driving behavior, EDR data can come in handy to prove you were obeying the posted speed limit, you were driving conscientiously, or that you were safely wearing your seatbelt. Here at Mike Morse Law Firm, we have experts on call who can obtain that information from your black box so it can be used in court on your behalf. Beyond that, we can possibly use black box data to help demonstrate that the other vehicles involved in the crash were speeding, driving improperly, or engaging in risky, aggressive maneuvers. To learn more, feel free to give us a call at 855-MIKE-WINS (855-645-3946) or get in touch with us here.

Why Your Car’s “Black Box” Could Make All the Difference in Your Personal Injury Case

Content checked by Mike Morse, personal injury attorney with Mike Morse Injury Law Firm. Mike Morse is the founder of Mike Morse Law Firm, the largest personal injury law firm in Michigan. Since being founded in 1995, Mike Morse Law Firm has grown to 150 employees, served 25,000 clients, and collected more than $1 billion for victims of auto, truck and motorcycle accidents. The main office is in Southfield, MI but you can also find us in Detroit, Sterling Heights and many other locations.