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Black Boxes in Cars Will Likely Become Mandatory

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Cue the Big Brother talk. This year’s transportation bill has a section mandating the installation of event recorders or so-called black boxes in all new cars by 2015.

According to, the Senate has already passed the bill and the House is expected to pass it as well. To assuage at least some privacy concerns, the Senate bill also makes it clear that any data taken from the boxes is the property of car owners, unless there are extenuating circumstances.

Car and Driver calls the language in the Senate bill vague, and quotes it saying that the boxes “must capture and store data related to motor vehicle safety.” What specific data relates to “motor vehicle safety” is not defined.

Of course, the language in the bill will change as the House and the Senate work to agree on a final version.

Before anyone gets too worked up, it should be pointed out that black boxes have existed since 1996 and, as of right now, 85% of new cars come equipped with them. Beyond that, as Slate points out, many insurance companies offer lower rates to customers who have boxes installed.

Insurance company adoption of black box technology has been catching on around the world. The Belfast Telegraph reports that young drivers in Northern Ireland are seeing their rates plummet thanks to the recent adoption of event recorders.

Still, many consumers are put off by the idea of the government finding a new way to monitor their behavior. What if, for example, these devices were used to track speeding?

Luckily, that’s going to be difficult to do. As I point out above, car owners or lessees ultimately own any information the trackers record. Authorities need a court order to access any of it, although emergency personnel can use data to help save lives.

Interestingly enough the government currently has a comparable technological way of tracking speeding. As Car and Driver points out, EZ Pass data could be used to calculate driver speed, but police aren’t allowed to use that to issue tickets. (Beyond privacy, this also prevents a logistical nightmare, as the data would incriminate literally everyone on the NJ Turnpike.)

While it’s mildly disconcerting to think of the government gaining access to every second we’re behind the wheel, it looks like there’s fail-safes built in against abuse. For the moment, event recorders might just make us safer.
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