Lawyers Journal

Automotive 'black box' provides accurate pre-crash information for fact-finding

The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that automobile manufacturers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration work together to gather information using on-board collision-sensing and recording devices.

Event-data recorders - like the well-known airline 'black boxes' - have been in use in the automotive industry since 1974. Prior to that, the truck and bus industries began using recovery and monitoring devices in their vehicles. Recently, the retrieval, data processing and reporting of downloaded crash information has become mainstream. Pre-crash information such as the speed of the vehicle four seconds prior to impact, brake status, state of the air bags and seat-belt use, provides valuable factual information.
These data devices are split into two information-storage cells. The first records information when an airbag is deployed. This information is then stored in the air-bag module and can be downloaded for analysis. The second storage cell retains information on near-deployment. The information will remain in the unit, until or unless there is another crash of greater magnitude, in which case the data is then written over. The module can be removed and shipped for analysis or read off the vehicle's data bus.
Event-data recording is expected to change the litigation process as the data may be considered factual and not opinion. Currently, a reconstruction expert is hired to give an opinion of speed from skid marks, speed from yaw marks, speed from vault, speed from crush or speed from time-distance calculations. The end result is an opinion of the pre-crash speed of the vehicle.
The event-data recording retains the vehicle pre-crash speed information within a reasonable degree of scientific certainty. and speed is monitored and recorded within 4 percent accuracy. By treating the recorder output as fact, it can eliminate the cost of a reconstruction expert or increase an expert's credibility when an opinion is needed.
While event-data recording will not eliminate the need for reconstruction experts, it will create a condition in which some of the evidence would be difficult to refute. Further, those borderline cases with minimal recovery can be evaluated knowing the output of the recorder without the cost of the reconstruction expert or a trial.
Often, the perception of a driver or occupant is distorted by the traumatic experience of the collision. In a head-on collision, the approaching vehicle appears to be going twice as fast for the observer in the vehicle about to be contacted. The output of the data recorder will verify or refute the estimates of witnesses prior to the costly process of a trial. Intersection accidents can be analyzed with a greater degree of certainty and eliminate many assumptions.
Seat-belt output will help evaluate the severity of the occupant injury based on the output of the recorder rather than an opinion based on damage patterns that may or may not be admissible in a court of law.
Event-data recording is useful in case evaluation and reasonably inexpensive. It is state-of-the-art technology and an important addition to the fact-finding process. As this is new technology, only 8 percent of insured vehicles utilize software compatible with the data recorders. That number is expected to increase in 2002, when more manufacturers utilize mainstream recovery systems. Further, the list of serviceable vehicles will grow as hardware becomes available for new and older vehicles.

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