Are data recorders the worst backseat driver ever, or a welcomed auto insurance discount for safe drivers in safe cars?

Police officer on motorcycle in rear mirror view
Event Data Recorders (EDR) - Are they always watching you?

You’ve heard of the little black book, and plenty of jilted lovers have discovered information that got their significant other in trouble in them, and now there’s another ‘little black thing-a-ma-doo’ that stands to get people in trouble with the info within – the little black boxes in cars, aka ‘Event data recorders.’

It may sound familiar too because it’s the device investigators look for after a plane crash, but did you know many cars on the road have them as well? Since the early 90s, manufacturers like GM have been placing these devices in your car, and if the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has its way, every single car manufactured after August 2014 will also have a black box. Supporters believe that it can improve safety methods and help lower car insurance rates and can be even used for Pay As You Drive Insurance. Opponents fear a Big Brother movement and open information access. This means insurance companies could also raise your rates as well.

Pro Data Recorders – Those in Favor Stress Lower Insurance Rates And Safety Benefits

Say ‘ay!’

Supporters of the black box movement claim that these tiny boxes, which are only about the size of a deck of cards, can literally save lives. Currently, the black boxes installed in cars are used to gather information after a crash. It’s caught quite a few people in lies (cough, ah-hem, cough, Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Timothy Murray) but that’s not the main purpose. When a crash occurs, especially one that results in injuries or death(s), police investigators look for clues as to what might have caused the crash. This determines if anyone needs to be charged, if it was just a freak accident, or if there was an element of the vehicle that determined the crash or contributed to deaths.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto safety, said little black boxes, “If we had these event data recorders, we would have picked up on child deaths from air bags much sooner.”

If that’s true, then our cars can continue to improve in safety, which also affects our auto insurance rates. As you probably know, the safer car is that you drive, the lower rates you enjoy. If a car has a proven history of risk, your rates will be higher. It’s not just you as a driver that helps determine how risky a car is either – by the time it’s in YOUR hands, crash test dummies have already tested the waters. So between the dummies and you, there’s no escaping high rates if your car is questionably risky and if you’re a bad driver (or just have bad luck, wink, wink.) If this kind of technology is not only to save your life but also save your money though, what’s the big deal?

Contra Data Recorders – Those Opposed Stress Privacy And Possibly Higher Insurance Premiums

Say nay.

The big deal is that these boxes are being put into everyone’s cars without widespread disclosure and gathering a ton of data. While government officials and auto groups are supporting the measure, no one is taking the initiative to put protection rules into place to guard people’s privacy. Additionally, this isn’t a program that you can opt out of. It’s part of standard installation on many cars and could spread. Without any protection, this information could be used by insurance companies to also raise your rates. The device tracks any activity that occurs immediately after an airbag deploys but how do we know when information is being gathered and when it isn’t?

Speeding, seat belt use, and even internet and radio use can be tracked by some devices (in short: distracted driving habits). These are all common factors that affect your insurance rates when you receive a ticket for them. But why should insurance companies wait for a ticket to charge you higher premiums when they can access to your immediate actions? The next thing you know, you receive your insurance bill with date and time specific incidents that are proved to be risky behavior. And you thought you were just making a quick trip to the convenience store! Lillie Conley, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, an advocacy group opposing mandatory black boxes has this to say: “Right now, we’re in an environment where there are no rules, there are no limits, there are no consequences, and there is no transparency.” Except for driver information…That seems to be extremely transparent.

The Black Box Facts

Although this technology has slowly been working its way into our

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backseats, 96% of new cars manufactured today have black boxes so we aren’t far from the NHTSA dream. Black boxes, also referred to as event data recorders (EDR), supposedly only record certain kinds of information like whether brakes were used before a crash, what the crash force, and air bag deployment info. The NHTSA site specifically states “EDRs do not collect any personal identifying information or record conversations and do not run continuously.” Currently though, only the manufacturer knows the entire list of what information a black box can capture and the NHTSA has no cap on the amount of data that can be collected.

The Black Box Insurance Effect

You may have already seen certain insurance companies touting new products that seem similar to the black box. Progressive, State Farm, and AllState are just a few of the big insurance names that promote optional car monitors as a way to save money but since this is a specific insurance product, it makes sense that they should be able to access the information. So how does a black box, which isn’t an insurance product, allow an insurance company to access the information?

Road sign: no texting & driving
EDR? Better by play by the rules.

Well, the NHTSA as well as the federal government is not giving your insurance company complete access to all your information. If you are in an accident and subsequently, make a claim, it’s reasonable to assume that your insurance company might want that data but what’s the big fear of privacy invasion? It’s the things that sneak in the back door when you’re not looking that have opponents worried. Insurance companies know that your car has a black box and could specifically build a clause into

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your insurance policy that gives them access to the information at specific times. Manufacturers certainly aren’t required to provide black box disclosure when you buy a new car so do you think your insurance company will let you know they buried a black box clause on page 23 of your 50 page policy and manual? Not likely.

Currently, only 13 states have laws in place which protect people from open access to black box information. There have been court cases that specifically claimed downloading black box data without a warrant was fine because consumer shouldn’t have a ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ when it comes to this data. So why would this information be considered off-limits for your insurance company?

Car safety plays a huge role in our everyday lives and the black box could help increase our safety knowledge, but it may hold other important tidbits of information as well. Right now, we’re aware of the factors that affect car insurance rates, but as black box use is implemented and potentially becomes mandatory, factors that determine premiums could become more obscure. Is improving safety worth open access information? Rarely are things so black and white, but as a consumer and responsible insured driver, read your car manual, check your insurance policy, and buckle your seatbelt. Someone might be watching.

Consumer Survey: Would You Trade Your Privacy For Lower Car Insurance Rates?