Black boxes have been around for years. Every time we hear a
television reporter describing a plane crash, we hear some reference
about the FAA waiting for the retrieval of the black box so that they
can determine the cause of the accident. That piece of equipment
gives the inspectors information about the way the plane was
functioning (or malfunctioning) just before it came down.
Trains, buses, trucks and street cars have had recording devices
routinely installed for many years. They are standard equipment on
school buses because the cargo they carry is so special and safe
delivery is critical. Speedographs and tachographs have given a
minute-by-minute record of a bus or truck's operation from the time
the new chart was inserted and the lid was closed until the lid was
opened and the chart was removed. Small knife cuts in the chart made
by the lid whenever it is closed tell the time the chart was inserted
and removed. A needle moves over the chart during the vehicle's
operation to tell exactly how the driver was driving: speed, braking,
stops, starts idling time, etc. If you have seen the seismograph
charts on television after an earthquake, you have some idea of the
way these records are created.
With our space-age technology, truck and train companies can know
where any given vehicle is at any given time. They can determine with
a keystroke the load, speed and fuel usage and anything else that
will make their operations more efficient.
Truck rental companies are very excited about these new
developments. Over the years they have been defrauded of millions of
dollars by renters who have disconnected the odometer cables so they
could drive hundreds of miles without incurring mileage costs. They
would reconnect them before they returned the vehicle and pay for
maybe a hundred miles. With the new vehicle computers, the rental
company knows exactly how far and how fast it has gone. I imagine
they have gotten more than a few surprises with the new system -- and
surprised some dishonest renters, too.
When I had some problems with my car last week, the mechanic
hooked my car into his computer to diagnose the problem. I watched as
the printed confirmation of what I had described to him was delivered
into his hands. He was able to see that I had proper tire pressure in
all four tires, drove at normal freeway speeds until the tire warning
light came on. At that point, I slowed down and then stopped and,
with the engine still running, made a visual inspection to see that
all four tires were fully inflated. I resumed my freeway travel at
normal speed, but the light remained on. He saw that I had a
malfunctioning air-pressure sensor on one of the wheels, a problem
that he corrected by retiming the sensor. Computers to the rescue!
Some people are concerned about the information that can be
extracted from the devices that are now standard equipment in newer
cars. Of course, a good deal of what is recorded covers only about
the last 30 minutes or so of driving time. If you have an accident,
that is the time you and your insurance company are interested in.
This can work for you or against you, of course. It can prove you
were driving within the speed limit and that you activated your
brakes in a timely manner. It can also tell that your seatbelt was
not fastened and, therefore, your air bag did not inflate. I guess
that means you have to do what you are supposed to do if you want to
be fully covered if the worst comes to pass. And it can provide
important information in the event of a collision. You can't always
count on people to be honest in reporting details of accidents; this
device could help. I imagine it could also provide the information
you need to prove that you didn't deserve a speeding ticket, should
you wish to challenge it -- or prove the officer's justification in
issuing the ticket. There are two sides to the coin.
Is your privacy being violated by this device? I don't think so.
Driving is not a right; it's a privilege. Along with that privilege
comes the responsibility to obey the rules of the road and to
consider your own safety and that of others. Your rights end where
another guy's rights begin.
Now, if they could install something simple that would sound a
horn when a driver starts to get sleepy, they would save a whole lot
of lives. Do you think that will be the next big innovation?
* JERRY LANE is a resident of La Crescenta and a regular
contributor to Community Forum. He can be reached at