TAMPA - Whether drivers know it or not, 90 percent of newer cars are fitted with an event data recorder, much like the 'black box' aboard aircraft.
After an accident, the device can be a powerful witness, revealing how fast a car was going, whether the driver braked and how they steered. When hooked up to a laptop computer, the event data recorder can even tell if occupants were wearing seatbelts.
"They do have a legitimate safety need, but you also have to worry about what happens to that information," said Mike Pheneger, President of the Florida ACLU. Pheneger believes the information on a car's black box can be helpful in accident investigations, but because there is no statutory limit on how much information can be gathered and for how long, he worries about privacy issues.
"If anybody wants to get it, they ought to have a subpoena or a court order or a warrant in the case of law enforcement showing probable cause to need it."
In an accident investigation, black box information is not a perfect witness. Because it doesn't see outside the car, it can't tell what conditions confronted the driver at the time of the crash.
Still, some insurance companies are offering discounts for people who allow them to review their driving habits through their data recorder. The concern is that companies will start requiring access to your black box as a condition of being insured.
"If you're going to do that, it ought to be a voluntary program. You ought to subscribe to it knowingly. Unless you subscribe to it, the insurance company ought not to be able to access private information from what is essentially your computer. You bought it when you bought the car," said Pheneger.
Florida Highway Patrol spokesman Steve Gaskins told ABC Action News that they typically access information from event data recorders only in fatal accidents. Gaskins said they usually seek a court order before doing so.
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