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Is the possible prevention of future car accidents worth 'spy cars'?

After a car accident, even one without serious injuries, most people are shaken up. Often enough, they can't remember clearly what happened, and memories have been shown to change over time. Even the most honest motorist may not know whether he or she was at fault if the collision is sudden.

Take the example of the Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, who was in a car accident last year. He was wearing his seatbelt, and he told police that he might have fallen asleep at the wheel or hit a patch of black ice. He wasn't ticketed.

Later, however, it was revealed that an electronic data recorder -- a "black box" much like those used on airplanes, had been installed on his car by the manufacturer. That data recorder showed that he had been going 75 miles per hour in a 65 mph zone -- and that he had accelerated to more than 100 mph. He was then issued a $555 ticket for speeding in excess of 100.

The lieutenant governor did not realize that some auto manufacturers have been installing black boxes on some models since 1999 -- and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wants to mandate them for all cars and light trucks sold in the U.S.

NHTSA believes that data about the car's speed, whether brakes were applied, engine throttle, air bag readiness and even seat belt use could give accident reconstructionists key information about how and why car wrecks happen. A broad sample might indicate problematic driving or maintenance behaviors that the agency could then work to resolve.

At the same time, the idea of black boxes in all consumers' vehicles has privacy groups extremely concerned. As we all know from social media, smart phones and other passive data collection, seemingly innocent data could easily be used for purposes never agreed to by consumers.

"There are important safety concerns here and they shouldn't be ignored, but there are also pressing privacy concerns," said the ACLU's legislative counsel for privacy issues. "Chiefly, who's going to access this information and how long is it going to be collected? I'd make sure that the owner of the vehicle controls the data."

NHTSA believes the data could save lives. Requiring the installation of black boxes would "ensure the agency has the safety-related information it needs to determine what factors may contribute to crashes across all vehicle manufacturers," says NHTSA Administrator David Strickland.

Serious and fatal car accidents can be life-changing for their victims. Do you think there's a way we can obtain key data about traffic safety without compromising privacy?

Source: ABC News, "Feds Want 'Black Boxes' in New Cars, But Who Will Be Tracking You?" Mark Greenblatt, Dec. 9, 2012

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Godfrey, Leibsle,
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