The Black Box Dilemma: Who Owns Your Car’s Data?

Who Owns Your Car's Data

The average person will be involved in a car collision about every 18 years. Whether you drive for a living, or just to work, devices that make driving safer can save lives. One of these devices is the electronic data recorder (EDR). Like a plane’s black box it records all the data about driving the car. However, unlike a plane’s data recorder, it only retains that data for the past several secondsĀ in the event of an accident. These devices have been vital to gathering information about faults in cars and designing safer, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Those several seconds of data they record can also be vital to proving a case in criminal or civil court. Outside of the courtroom any insurance company can’t wait to get their hands on that data to determine if a claim should be paid out.

Who Gets the Data?

Several states have passed laws dealing with who owns the data, however, the police and prosecutors can obtain the information with a court order anywhere in the U.S. Right now, who gets access is largely an undecided issue for Pennsylvania.

The House and Senate in Pennsylvania have been discussing legislation dealing with the boxes. House Bill 879 and Senate Bill 678 both tackle the problem of who can download the data. The Senate bill, at least, proposes to make it illegal for anyone to download the data unless:

  • they are the owner of the vehicle or have permission from the owner;

  • a court order is issued permitting the downloading of the data;

  • the data is downloaded for research purposes, however, they are not permitted to expose the owner’s identity;

  • the data is used to service or repair the vehicle; or,

  • the National Transportation Safety Board requests it as part of an investigation.

However, this is just proposed legislation. The bill may or may not pass in the 2014 session and until it does the uncertainty that exists now will persist.

What Can Be Done with the Data?

Aside from your mechanic who could use the data for repairing your car, there are three other groups who want access to the data: the police and prosecutors, attorneys in civil cases, and insurance companies.

Police Can Use it for Tickets

Police Car

Police can make use of the data to prove any traffic citation if they can secure it through a court order. The information obtained from the black box would generally be admissible in court unless there is some other Constitutional or evidentiary violation which prevents its presentation.

Attorneys Can Use it to Sue or Defend a Case

Whenever there is an accident, everyone who was injured wants to be made right. Personal injury attorneys on both sides want access to the data to show their opposing side’s liability or their client’s innocence.

In particular, since most black boxes note whether the seat belts were being used at the time of the accident, millions of dollars in damages could be at stake. If one party wasn’t wearing their belts, the issue of contributory negligence can be raised and the amount recoverable could be substantially lowered.

Insurance Companies Can Use it to Deny Claims or Raise Rates

Insurance companies want to know why an accident happened, and what better way than an impartial recorder right there in the car which noted everything about the vehicle prior to the accident. They can tell whether you were going over the speed limit, when you started breaking, or whether the airbag was deployed. They can even tell how long you have been driving to determine whether you should have taken a break.

Even if the insurance company doesn’t deny the claim, they may raise your rates in an accident that you were not at fault in. All they are looking for is some way to make the case that you were also engaging in unsafe driving.

In the absence of the proposed legislation, insurance companies may be able to pull the data off the black box if the vehicle is taken to them for inspection following an accident. They may be able to do this regardless of the owner’s consent.

The issue of who gets the data from these black boxes is still a dilemma. While it is nearly always available to the police if they are granted a court order, there are plenty of others out there who might want the data. Despite the device being small and working in the background, it can play a huge part in any accident and determine if you were at fault or not.

About Bart Beier

Bart Beier returned to Pittsburgh to open a private law practice after completing his education at Harvard University. He then co-founded the firm of Beier, Beier & Beier with his wife Mary. Bart has extensive litigation experience in a wide range of personal injury cases including slip and falls, auto accidents, and defective products. He provides clients with special insight into insurance practices, having worked for two major insurers before practicing law. Bart also has developed considerable real estate expertise with 35 years of experience. He has personally done over 2,000 real estate closings and has been a real estate title agent for over 20 years. Bart works with both residential and commercial real estate clients throughout Pennsylvania.