Automobile DNA Testing

According to today's Boston Globe (registration may be required), the Massachusetts Appeals Court upheld the accuracy of information received from automobile event data recorders (EDR) for use in court cases. Event data recorders, sometimes called car "black boxes," are devices installed in a motor vehicle to record technical vehicle and occupant information for a brief period of time (seconds, not minutes) before, during and after a crash, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Association website.

An EDR may record (1) pre-crash vehicle dynamics and system status (e.g., wheel speed, engine rpm), (2) driver inputs (e.g., braking, acceleration), (3) vehicle crash signature, (4) restraint usage/deployment status, and (5) post-crash data such as the activation of an automatic collision notification (ACN) system. According to an article in Time magazine, some 64% of cars made today have EDRs, and about 33% of all cars on the road today have them installed.

In the Massachusetts case, a woman was sentenced to two years in prison after her GMC Yukon skidded on ice and hit a tree, killing her passenger in 2003. The woman claimed that she was traveling only 20 to 30 miles per hour when she lost control, but the car's recorder showed that she was traveling 58 m.p.h. in a 40 m.p.h. zone. Her lawyer appealed her case arguing that the EDR's information was not reliable or accurate.

Consumer and privacy advocates have been opposite sides of the debate. According to the Time article, Public Citizen's Joan Claybrook "wants tougher rules compelling automakers to install EDRs in every car because objective crash data will lead to the design of safer cars and highways. Privacy activists want the government to prevent police and insurance companies from checking drivers' black boxes without permission. 'We have a surveillance monster growing in our midst," says Barry Steinhardt of the American Civil Liberties Union. 'These black boxes are going to get more sophisticated and take on new capabilities.' "

Like most technologies, once out of the bottle, they can't be put back in. And when its a question of public safety or privacy, privacy usually loses. The same will likely be true in the case of electronic medical records.


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Robert Charette
Spotsylvania, Va.
Willie D. Jones
New York City