Aug. 16--Putting the equivalent of flight data recorders in all new cars and trucks would raise some interesting issues.
The National Transportation Safety Board, which is responsible for doing postmortem investigations of aircraft crashes, recommends that cars and trucks be equipped with similar devices.
The board uses the so-called black box as one tool to determine what caused a crash. The goal isnt necessarily to affix blame lawyers and juries usually do that in a courtroom but to save lives by preventing similar crashes.
The agency believes that safety investigators could benefit from being able to collect mechanical and environmental data about the vehicle after automobile crashes, which kill a lot more Americans each year than airplane crashes.
Some car and truck performance data already are available to safety officials and engineers. Depending on the vehicle, data can be extracted from controllers for some of the onboard electronic equipment.
But it varies by manufacturer.
Thats why the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has proposed standards for automotive black boxes that would require them to monitor and collect 42 individual data.
Theres no doubt that amount of information could be useful for police officers, safety agency officials, engineers, insurance adjusters and trial lawyers.
There are privacy issues, though. Who can access the data? Does it require a court order? Is it a breech of my right against self-incrimination to have my car testify in court about how fast I was driving?
There also are cost issues. How much will it cost? And who will set the standards?
If the black box makes sense, the cost and standardization issues can be resolved, just as they have been with other mandated safety equipment. And the privacy issues can be resolved, just as they have been with blood tests that match DNA or checks for sobriety.
But even if cars and trucks end up with the equivalent of flight data recorders, there should be a law against putting cockpit voice recorders in cars and trucks. Thats because a cockpit voice recorder in the family SUV may provide more data than officials need. Or want to hear.
Can you imagine a typical transcript?
Pilot: Everybody buckled? Here we go.
Copilot: Billy, pull your seat up.
Billy: No. I dont wanna.
Copilot: Its not safe to sit like that; the belt comes right across your neck and youd slide out if we had to stop quickly.
Billy: But Im tired. I wanna lay back.
Copilot: Do it!
Pilot: How far did you drive this thing yesterday? I need to stop for gas already. I cant believe it.
Mike: Are we there yet?
Pilot: Dont start that.
Copilot: Billy, keep your hands to yourself!
Billy: But Mike poked me first.
Mike: Did not. You stole my (garbled)... .
Copilot: Just watch the movie. What are you guys watching?
Billy: Some stupid cartoon about a fish.
Copilot: Would you please turn that radio down!
Pilot: Im trying to hear what this guy is saying and ... (garbled) all the racket back there.
Copilot: Why do you listen to him any way? I want to put in a CD.
Pilot: But the games on in five minutes. I thought you were going to read your (garbled) book.
Mike: How much longer?
Pilot: Will you stop asking me that?
Mike: OK. Then whats our e.t.a.?
Pilot: Stop bugging me so I can pay attention to the road!
Some things really should stay private.