When Gov. Gray Davis recently signed a law regulating ownership of computer data aboard motor vehicles, the state ventured for the first time into an important and controversial area that pits public safety against privacy rights.
An estimated 25 million cars in the U.S. contain electronic systems -- known as black boxes but more correctly called event data recorders -- that record crucial vehicle information in the seconds before an accident. Some models of almost every auto manufacturer, led by General Motors Corp., have black boxes installed, typically under the hood or in the dashboard.
The new law, by Assemblyman Tim Leslie (R-Tahoe City), was signed in September. It aims to force automakers to disclose the existence of these computer systems to new-car buyers and regulate access to the data in the computers. The law is the first in the country to set up a legal framework for what is sure to be a proliferation of event data recorders in vehicles.
"Most consumers are probably unaware that they might be driving a car equipped with one of these black-box devices," Leslie said. "And they deserve the right to grant or deny access to that information."
Event data recorders are memory chips associated with air bags and other mechanical systems that typically record a vehicle's speed, acceleration, braking performance and other data in a continuous five-second loop. For example, if a car speeding at 100 mph rear-ends another vehicle and the driver claims he was driving 65, a black box would easily expose such a lie. Similarly, a driver who blows through a stop sign and broadsides another car would be nailed by a recorder.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been studying the issue of black boxes since 1998 and last year was petitioned by its former administrator, Ricardo Martinez, to create rules mandating that such equipment be installed in all new passenger cars. A committee of technical experts concluded in 2001 that widespread use of the devices could make important contributions to highway safety.
But many privacy advocates are alarmed by the recorders, believing they represent a dangerous new government attack on individual rights and will fuel a vicious new cycle of civil lawsuits over responsibility for automobile accidents.
A central issue in this debate is who owns the data in an automobile computer. Already, cars contain enough electronics to notify authorities when a car has had an accident, whether the air bags deployed and the precise location of the event.
It is not too far-fetched to suggest that future electronic boxes in a vehicle could record whether a driver was using a turn signal, wearing a seat belt, turning the steering wheel or even adjusting a radio during an accident. Such information could prove priceless in determining the cause of fatal accidents.
But all this triggers concerns over Big Brother issues, and that's where the black-box law fits in.
The new California law says that automakers must disclose by July whether such a system exists in their new cars. And it gives the vehicle owner control of the data, except in four cases: when a court orders the release, when a mechanic makes repairs, when researchers conduct safety studies and when an owner volunteers it.
However, the legal complexities stemming from this issue are vast.
Imagine that you cause a fatal accident. Under the U.S. Constitution, you have the right not to incriminate yourself and the right to protect certain information from seizure without proper legal authority. But does that right extend to the information in your car? Nobody knows the answer yet.
The insurance industry is watching this issue closely, because ultimately it wants access to the data to help determine accident liability.
Sam Sorich, president of the Assn. of California Insurance Companies, said the new law came in under the radar scopes of many people, though it is likely to influence other states.
And NHTSA's review of a possible rule that would make black boxes mandatory has triggered impassioned arguments on both sides.
Truck drivers and the trucking industry contend that they would bear higher expenses and greater legal liability. "I feel it is an invasion of a person's private business," wrote one Illinois trucker. "Life is a gamble every morning when one gets out of bed."
"As a trucker for over 30 years, I say no to installing black boxes in trucks," wrote another.
But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, AAA and Advocates for Highway Safety cited strong evidence that recorders could make an important contribution to saving lives.
"Improving safety for millions of people who travel is the single most important reason to promote the expansion and use of event data recorder technology," AAA said.