Focus Shifts To 'Black Boxes' After Toyota Crashes

Questions about Toyota and sudden acceleration have prompted new interest in the "black boxes" on cars. Event-data recorders typically contain information about speed and acceleration in the seconds before a serious crash. The information is increasingly used in accident investigations.

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You know about black boxes in airplanes, but did you know there's probably one in your car? Questions about Toyota and sudden acceleration have prompted new interest in these black boxes. They often contain information about speed, acceleration and braking in the seconds before a serious crash.

And as NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports, data from these devices is increasingly being used by police, safety experts and lawyers.

WENDY KAUFMAN: We begin with a mystery, one that illustrates how valuable these small metal boxes might be. Last fall, Joyce Kilburg hopped into a cab on Chicago's North Side. Everything seemed normal, but then inexplicably the cab sped up. It crashed into a tree. Kilburg was very badly injured. Her family retained lawyer Dan Kotin. He says the cab company maintained that this was a case of sudden unintended acceleration. Kotin wanted evidence.

Mr. DAN KOTIN (Lawyer): We went into court and asked for access to what's in the engine of all of these new model cars - event data recorders - so that we could come up with a data which would either prove or disprove that the vehicle accelerated without his input.

KAUFMAN: Suppose, for example, the device recorded that both the accelerator and the brake were depressed, that might indicate the throttle was stuck and the cabby was trying to stop. Kotin wonders if the accident was the result of reckless driving, or if there was a defect in the Ford Crown Victoria. But a strange thing happened when his investigators tried to retrieve the device from the taxi cab.

Mr. KOTIN: As soon as they opened the hood, they discovered that the two-piece event data recorder was gone.

KAUFMAN: He says he doesnt know who took it. Information from the event data recorder could be very helpful to Kotin's case, but it's not definitive evidence and can sometimes be misleading. Ordinarily, the digital record belongs to you, the driver, says John Verdi, senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Mr. JOHN VERDI (Senior Counsel, Electronic Privacy Information Center): Data that you're generating, either through GPS or through your automobile's black box, that belongs to you and you can more or less do with it what you like.

KAUFMAN: Unless, he continues, it's evidence in a civil case like the one involving the Chicago cab, or it's sought as part of a criminal investigation.

Mr. VERDI: Lots of us have physical information or computer-based information in our homes that we own and we control access to up until the point that a law enforcement investigation indicates that that information may impact on a criminal matter.

KAUFMAN: Detective Russell Haake of the Washington State Patrol is unlocking the gate of a large parking lot where the twisted metal remains of cars involved in serious accidents are held as evidence. The detective says if prosecutors want the digital material from the car's black boxes, they have to get a search warrant.

Mr. RUSSELL HAAKE (Detective, Washington State Patrol): The warrant for us is a tool to get the information while not overstepping somebody's rights to privacy with regards to their vehicles or their homes, because we have the right to privacy.

KAUFMAN: Law enforcement officials and crash investigators can analyze data from some cars fairly easily. But some lawyers who've tried to get data from Toyota vehicles say it's been difficult.

Toyota began installing event data recorders in some of its vehicles nearly a decade ago. But until very recently, the company had only one specialized laptop in the entire U.S. to read out the data. Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said the system has been considered experimental.

Mr. BRIAN LYONS (Spokesman, Toyota Motor Corp.): The reason it's experimental is because of what our intended purpose of the EDR readout is, and that's to develop safety features. We don't find it suitable to be used for accident re-creation.

KAUFMAN: But some of the automaker's adversaries claim that Toyota deliberately made the digital record hard to get and decode. As one lawyer put it: What good is ownership of the data if you can't understand it? Again, privacy advocate John Verdi.

Mr. VERDI: It's fairly rare in lawsuits for a victim or an alleged victim to be in possession of information that they're unable to decode and then be required to rely on the very party they're suing to decode that data.

KAUFMAN: In the past month or so, Toyota has begun to moderate its stance. Responding to pressure from Capitol Hill, the automaker says it intends to make it easier to find out what's inside those black boxes.

Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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