Did you know that your vehicle has a black box which is similar to a plane’s? Whenever a plane crashes, a search ensues for the black box, which gives all the information about the plane before the crash. Your vehicle has a similar device called an electronic data recorder or EDR which usually sits underneath the steering wheel and connects to the driver’s airbag. EDRs generally trigger during impact accelerations caused by crash-like events. The devices register the status of a predetermined list of vehicle operating systems to create a multi-dimensional story of what the vehicle, and thus the driver, were doing up to 15 seconds before, during, and after a crash.
An estimated six million car accidents occur in the US every year. Every crash is unique and often it’s not obvious to investigators why a crash occurred. The data from the black box can be an important tool for police, but privacy issues and constitutional protections are not always a given out in the field.
The Driver’s Privacy Act of 2015 states that any data stored on an EDR are the property of the owner or the lessee of the vehicle. The US Department of Transportation has also set regulations concerning the collection, storage, and retrieval of the black box data after a crash.
Seventeen states—Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Washington State—have enacted statutes related to EDR privacy. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Standard Association (IEEE/SA) has even created a global standard to safeguard access to crash data.
Most of us would concur that the data belongs to the vehicle owner. In a 2019 court case, Georgia State Supreme Court Judges agreed. Justice Keith Blackwell wrote in the ruling:
“A personal motor vehicle is plainly among the ‘effects’ with which the Fourth Amendment—as it historically was understood—is concerned. The retrieval of the data without a warrant at the scene of the collision was a search and seizure that implicates the Fourth Amendment, regardless of any reasonable expectations of privacy.”
This Georgia case involved Victor Lamont Mobley, who was involved in a traffic accident that killed two others in December 2014. Mobley hit a car as it pulled out of a private driveway in front of him. Even though there was no indication of speeding, Henry County police downloaded Mobley’s vehicle EDR content without Mobley’s permission. The data suggested that Mobley had been traveling 97 mph in his Dodge Charger at the time of the accident. Because of the evidence garnered from the warrantless download of his black box, Mobley was charged with vehicular homicide and sentenced to seven years in prison. Because the warrantless download was considered unconstitutional, Mobley won in the state’s highest court.
As cars become more connected, automakers should provide better privacy protection for consumers. Unfortunately, with the proliferation of vehicle electronic systems, data logging is more important than ever for automakers and not necessarily individual customers.
Advice for motorists: Read your vehicle’s owner manual to understand its black box technology and keep up with the latest laws and court cases on EDR privacy—particularly in the states where you currently drive.
Shelia Dunn has served as Communications Director for the National Motorists Association since 2016. The NMA is a nonpartisan and grassroots nonprofit advocating for motorists across the US. Check out the NMA on Facebook and Twitter. Email the NMA at email@example.com.