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Jun 21, 2005 |

The crashworthiness of motor vehicles has improved immensely over the past several years. The addition of front, side, and overhead air bags, crumple zones, safety cages, reinforced door panels, and less vulnerable fuel tanks have significantly improved your chances of surviving even a violent collision. These improvements, however, are reaching their limit and may only see smaller advances in the future.

It is for this reason that manufacturers are turning their attention to “crash-avoidance” technology which is designed to enhance driver awareness, reaction, and response in critical situations. This includes computerized systems that avoid collisions, minimize impacts, sense changing road conditions, sound warnings, tighten seatbelts, enhance braking and steering, and improve handling. Even radar sensors are being incorporated into this technology.

Many of the newest systems integrate several features that then act together in dangerous situations thereby producing optimal driver response. This significantly improves the chances of survival for an average or even below average driver.

The potential “dark side” to all of this technology, however, can be found in the sophisticated data-collection or “black box” devices that are now routinely installed in about two-thirds of the new vehicles sold in the United States. Some 30 million vehicles already have these devices known officially as event data recorders.

Currently, these devices are designed to record and store information on such variables as speed, throttle position, braking, airbag deployment, and seat belt use. More elaborate black boxes are used by long-haul trucking companies to monitor the operation of their trucks in great detail.

There are a multitude of uses to which this information can be put. Some of them are very good and some, according to privacy experts, are very bad.

On the positive side, the information gathered may prove helpful in criminal prosecutions, to help convict bad drivers of speeding and drunk driving violations, and to exonerate those wrongly accused of certain offenses. As raw data, without identifying individual drivers, it can aid in improving traffic laws and automobile design and safety.

Many lawmakers and privacy advocates see a real danger that this information will be used in litigation or by insurance companies against drivers who were unaware it was being collected.  
They also fear that once the technology is in place, more and more information can be gathered with very little difficulty. This could include recording information from on-board navigation and cell phone systems. It could also lead to insurance companies structuring rates to penalize drivers who refuse to have one of the devices in their car.

To deal with these concerns, there are proposals requiring disclosure by manufacturers as to which vehicles have the devices and for the installation of cut-off switch that can be activated by the driver.

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