Automobile Black Box Laws

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  What is an Automobile Black Box?

An automobile black box, also known as a car black box or an event data recorder, is an electronic device that records important information before, during, and after a motor vehicle accident. Automobile black boxes are typically implanted in a vehicle by its manufacturer and are usually activated by the impact caused by a collision. 

In general, such devices will normally detect some of the following information about a crash:

  • The status of a vehicle’s brakes (five seconds prior to impact);
  • The position of a vehicle’s gas or throttle;
  • Whether the driver of the vehicle was wearing a seatbelt or not;
  • A vehicle’s travel velocity (which includes both its actual speed and direction);
  • Whether the airbag in a vehicle was deployed or not;
  • The speed of the vehicle and its engine (five seconds before impact); and
  • In some vehicles, whether there was an audio device on in the driver compartment.

As is evident from the information in the above list, automobile black boxes are extremely powerful devices that can store important data related to a motor vehicle accident. 

Additionally, automobile black boxes were originally created so that mechanics could diagnose accident-related vehicle issues. These devices became especially useful for detecting whether a vehicle’s airbags were deployed or not. They also are sometimes used to measure safety statistics on U.S. highways in some jurisdictions. 

Despite all of the advantages that they offer, there is also a downside to being able to record what happens before, during, and after a crash and that has to do with the fact that automobile black boxes can detect whether or not a driver was speeding prior to impact. Thus, the devices have prompted a now hotly debated issue to arise, which is whether such data can be used against a driver who is being sued in court. 

To learn more about the answers to this question, you can continue reading the section below for some information. However, the information below does not constitute legal advice. Therefore, in addition to reading this article, it may be in your best interest to consult a local personal injury attorney for further legal advice about a specific car black box matter.

Can Information in Automobile Black Boxes Be Used in Court?

Whether the data from an automobile black box can be used in court or not will largely depend on the laws of the jurisdiction in which the motor vehicle accident occurred. 

Some courts hold that the information recorded in an automobile black box belongs to the owner of the vehicle. In such courts, this would mean that the police and/or other law enforcement authorities would only be allowed to access the data if they obtained a valid search warrant for the device first. 

In general, it is usually not that difficult to secure a valid search warrant, so long as law enforcement satisfies all of the elements required to obtain a warrant like having probable cause to view the recorded information contained in an automobile black box. 

Accordingly, as automobile black boxes increasingly become a feature added to many new cards, it is more likely than not that the police and other law enforcement authorities will be able to procure a search warrant and access the information stored within the device. Most U.S. vehicles now come equipped with an electronic data recorder installed. Thus, the percentage of motor vehicles on the road that have them has only risen since then.

Basically, what the answer to the question—can the data from an automobile black box be used in court—comes down to hinges on three issues that will need to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court:

  • First, is all of the data recorded on a car black box considered private or public information? If only some of the data is considered to be private, which parts are not and how does law enforcement isolate those public points?
  • Second, if courts always permit the data from an automobile black box to be admissible in court, would this violate a defendant’s rights? (This will be discussed in further detail in the section below).
  • Third, would the use of black box information place an unnecessary and unfair burden on criminal defendants due to the amount it would cost to procure such information? Also, which party in a civil lawsuit would carry the burden of this cost?

What are Some Other Issues Related to Automobile Black Box Laws?

One important issue related to automobile black box laws is that there are no set industry standards or uniform rules implemented yet, regarding these devices because they are still considered a new technology. Thus, not only is there a lack of information about the reliability and accuracy of the data results from automobile black boxes, but there is also no clear-cut legislation on whether or not the data from these devices are admissible in court.  

As a result, the issue of data accuracy and lack of governance may play a significant role in determining the outcome of a lawsuit. Given the fact that so many courts have differing opinions, it would not be surprising to see this issue come before the U.S. Supreme Court in the near future.

In addition, the courts in some jurisdictions have even held that an insurance company may be able to access the data from an automobile black box as well. This would give insurance companies a new opportunity to potentially abuse the data recorded on such devices and to use it to their advantage. For example, an insurance company may claim that a driver was speeding to avoid having to make payouts (i.e., insurance proceeds).

This level of accessibility has also sparked a different debate to arise over privacy concerns. There are many privacy law issues when it comes to the collection and processing of data from an automobile black box. For instance, what if someone other than the owner of the car was driving at the time of the crash? Once again, whether this information will be admissible during a trial or not will vary by jurisdiction. 

One final problem with automobile black boxes is that the current models do not record a driver’s behavior prior to the start of a crash. So, if a driver was obeying the speed limit, but then had to swerve or speed up to avoid a worse collision, the black box would not include this information in the file. Thus, a driver might be forced to testify on the stand to describe the events prior to an accident, which in turn, could violate their Fifth Amendment rights. 

Do I Need a Lawyer for Assistance With Automobile Black Box Laws?

If you wish to sue or are being sued for injuries related to a car accident and are concerned about automobile black box laws in your area, then it is strongly recommended that you hire a local car accident attorney for further guidance. An experienced personal injury attorney will know both the court and local rules in your state regarding whether certain data from an automobile black box can be admitted during a trial. 

Your attorney can also help you draft and file any necessary legal documents with the court, and can explain your rights under the law. In addition, your attorney will be able to answer any questions you may have about your case or about automobile black boxes in general. Lastly, your attorney can provide legal representation in court should it be necessary if your case reaches the trial stage.

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