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Traffic Enforcement

“Black Box” Standard for New Cars Could Be Big Gain for Street Safety

There’s encouraging movement in Washington on a
different automated-enforcement front: a rule to equip new cars with
"black boxes" capable of recording up to 60 seconds worth of pre-crash
data.

rasha_shamoon.jpgThe
NYPD investigation into the 2008 crash that killed cyclist Rasha
Shamoon relied heavily on interviews with the driver and his passengers.

What
might black boxes -- scaled-down versions of flight recorders used in
commercial airliners since the 1950s -- bring to street safety? Data
and accountability.

Data that can reveal driver choices such as speed and braking in
the crucial seconds preceding a crash; and driver accountability that
police and prosecutors historically have been loath to enforce, in part
because crash reconstruction has lacked sufficiently firm evidence.

U.S.
automakers began installing "event recorders" in new cars in the 1990s
to defend against lawsuits over air bag deployment, and most cars built
since 2004 have some sort of data recording device. But the current
NHTSA standard for black boxes is optional, and recommends that they
record only five seconds of data preceding crashes. Which makes it
noteworthy that the Alliance of Auto Manufacturers told Congress last month
that it won't oppose making the standard mandatory and extending the
recording period to a full minute. That interval should be sufficient
to give crash investigators information to assign culpability, and,
where the facts warrant, for prosecutors to indict and juries to
convict.

The first use of black box data to convict a reckless driver in New York State was in Rochester in 2004. Here’s how the Times reported it:

After Danny G. Hopkins’s Cadillac CTS rear-ended Lindsay Kyle’s DodgeNeon at a traffic light in Rochester a year ago, witnesses said Mr.Hopkins had been zooming down the road, and crash investigators whoexamined the condition and location of the wreckage estimated that Mr.Hopkins was traveling 65 to 70 miles an hour at the point of impact.But in a trial that ended on Oct. 7, a witness emerged with more tosay: that four seconds before the crash, it had been traveling 106m.p.h. The witness in the case was an event data recorder, anautomotive equivalent of the black boxes used to reconstruct planecrashes. A jury convicted Mr. Hopkins of second-degree manslaughter, acrime whose elements include recklessness and which carries a penaltyof up to 15 years in jail.

The Monroe County assistant district attorney told
the Times, “Clearly the black box technology played a large part in the
jury’s finding of guilty.” Six years later, why aren't DA's routinely
mining black boxes for data?

One reason is the limited
data from black boxes noted earlier. Another is the low staffing for,
and status of, traffic justice in police departments and prosecutorial
agencies. But the biggest obstacle has been the huge weight accorded
privacy concerns, a penchant inadvertently played up by the 2004 Times
story headline, “Does Your Car Have a Spy in the Engine?” As U.K. road
safety campaigner John Whitelegg once noted, the public’s right for
protection against lethal driving has been trumped by motorists'
"right" to protection from the risk of being found guilty of breaking
the law.

Much of this could change if, as appears likely, Congress writes a black-box standard into the auto safety bill. As I wrote six years ago [PDF],
with the notable exception of DWI, which can be conclusively
demonstrated in a roadside breathalyzer test or by measuring the
driver’s blood alcohol content, irrefutable evidence implicating
negligent drivers has been expensive or impossible for the state to
obtain. Indeed, the difficulty of conclusively assigning responsibility
for vehicle crashes helped give rise to no-fault insurance in the
1960s, paving the way for the no-fault ethos that helps make our
streets and highways killing zones.

Putting reckless driving on a par with drunk driving, both
legally and culturally, is a key building block for safe and livable
streets in New York and across America. A strong federal black-box
standard could be a major step.

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