In July 2003, a 1992 Buick LeSabre plowed through an outdoor marketplace in Santa Monica, Calif., killing 10 people and injuring 63 others. Safety investigators could only guess what caused the crash.
They concluded that the car's elderly driver probably stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake. But they lamented that the car did not have an event data recorder, or black box, that could have provided better information.
The crash led the National Transportation Safety Board (ntsb.gov) to recommend in August 2004 that federal regulators require data recorders on all new vehicles. The board previously had called on regulators to work with the industry to improve vehicle sensing and recording capability.
Black box proponents say the wealth of data that the devices could provide would have tremendous potential safety benefits, leading to improvements in vehicles, equipment, highways and perhaps driver behavior.
Despite the stronger NTSB recommendation, black boxes will not be mandatory any time soon. Technology is not the roadblock -- policy questions are. The issue is whether data recorders threaten motorists' rights to privacy and against self-incrimination.
"We're not changing our position," says Rae Tyson, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
NHTSA, which regulates vehicle safety, was the target of the NTSB's proposal. It has no plans to mandate vehicle black boxes.
But the agency will set standards on how black boxes should operate if they are installed. The rules would take effect with the 2009 model year.
When NHTSA issued its proposal last year it estimated that about 15 percent of cars and light trucks on the road -- roughly 30 million vehicles -- already have event data recorders with easily retrievable information.
NHTSA says another 65 to 90 percent of new vehicles are being equipped with the devices. The agency says it does not have precise figures because not all automakers provide NHTSA with details on the subject.
Many existing recorders are linked to airbag deployment systems.
The media refer to all of the data recording devices as black boxes, regardless of sophistication. Industry engineers and government agencies try to avoid the term.