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What is a black box and does my car have one?

By Kevin Chan in Car Accidents on February 09, 2022

What is a black box and does my car have one?

Inside your car’s black box

In the aftermath of a car accident, pedestrian accident or trucking accident, finding out the true cause of the incident is of utmost importance. Law enforcement will want to know whether or not the incident should be classified as an accident, as well as who to hold responsible for the event. Insurance companies will want a clear report of the findings before paying out any claims. Last, and certainly not least, the individuals involved in the accident and their families will want to understand what went wrong and how to avoid something similar from happening in the future. 

In order to provide analysts with as much data as possible regarding the moments before a car accident, the event data recorder (EDR) was invented. More commonly known as a “black box”, EDRs are equipped on many modern vehicles, including planes, ships and cars. Although laws and regulations mandating the use of any kind of recording device change from country to country, many manufacturers themselves are in favour of these devices; since 2013, most new cars come equipped with an EDR.

What is a black box?

Originally, the black box was designed to work in close conjunction with the airbag control module (ACM), the system in your car that controls the airbags: how and when they deploy. For this purpose, and in its original configuration, the black box would record information that was important towards assessing whether the airbags were functioning properly in the event of a crash, information such as how fast the car was moving, when airbags were deployed in relation to the time of impact, etc. 

Over time, while the ACM continued to be developed as it was originally intended, manufacturers and policymakers found a new use for the black box. Not only did it become important to understand collisions from a technical standpoint, in order to save lives through better protection and prevention, but a need grew to be able to quantify what had happened during the event. 

What exactly do black boxes record?

Today, black boxes must follow strict regulations by governing bodies, such as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the United States and Transport Canada (TC). As of 2013, black boxes must be able to record information, including: 

  • Any change in forward crash acceleration
  • Time elapsed from the start of the collision, when the maximum change in forward crash acceleration happens
  • The speed at which the vehicle was travelling
  • How far down the accelerator was pushed down
  • If the brakes were engaged
  • If the driver was wearing a seatbelt at the time of the crash
  • If airbags were engaged and how much time did it take for them to deploy (particularly in the event of a vehicle with airbags that release at different times)
  • Total count of collisions (if more than one) and the time interval between collisions.

The black box is only able to record a few seconds of information prior to the crash, which is logged in the black box second by second. By federal transportation regulations, it is not required to record any audio or video information, but the statistical data that it does carry will help any investigation or analysis after the fact.

Getting information out of the black box

If you’re trying to figure out whether or not you’ve seen the black box in your personal vehicle before, there’s a good chance that you have not, unless you were specifically looking for it. By nature of their purpose, it is created and placed within the car strategically, in order to withstand the damage sustained during the crash. Black boxes, despite their name, might not even be black in colour; many are brightly coloured to make the recovery of them easier. 

Reviewing the information

Drivers who might be curious to view crash information from their black boxes themselves will be disappointed to learn that, while not impossible, it can be quite challenging to download the information from their crashed vehicle without prior experience and equipment. 

Assuming that you know where the black box is located in the vehicle (and can locate it again in the wreckage), the most common tool used to access information in the black box is the Bosch CDR tool kit. Over thirty well-known carmakers use black boxes that are designed to be accessed using the Bosch CDR tool kit, including Toyota, Chevrolet, Cadillac, Chrysler, Pontiac, Jeep, Hummer, Fiat, GMC, Lincoln, Volvo, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. 

Once located, the black box then has to be removed from the vehicle, a process that requires professional expertise. After that’s done, the Bosch CDR tool is plugged into the appropriate port in your vehicle’s black box, the information can then be downloaded to a device preloaded with the CDR reader, which can then be viewed as a PDF on your device of choice. This documentation would be reviewed and assessed by trained individuals to either confirm or refute empirical accounts of the event, such as eyewitness testimony or victim statements. 

Exceptions to mandated black box usage

In recent years, many jurisdictions around the world have passed legislation to ensure that all cars manufactured have black boxes installed. Other non-car vehicles, such as ocean-bound ships and planes, also have similar legislation and have black boxes installed as well, for a similar purpose. 

However, this does not mean all vehicles carry black boxes. Cars that were manufactured before regulations were implemented may not have black boxes unless the reseller or owner took it upon themselves to prepare the installation. Recently, while many manufacturers are in favour of installing black boxes in their vehicles, there has been a shift away pushing for mandating black box usage in all civilian vehicles. 

In addition, heavy trucks that weigh over 8,500 pounds are not mandated to have a black box on board; these vehicles often have an engine recorder, to record and check for engine failure and other related issues, but is not the same as a black box and is not sufficient for the purposes that a black box serves in a post-crash investigation. 

Privacy laws and black boxes

Black boxes may seem like an objective way to establish what happened in the unfortunate case of a collision or accident, but privacy activists suggest that the information could be misused. Many civilian drivers may only become aware that the vehicle they are driving is fitted with a black box when they are involved in a collision. Those who do know that their car has a black box may not have the technical proficiency or equipment to access the black box, and so would be hard-pressed to obtain and secure the information on their own. In addition, in the case of a collision, civilians may be barred access from the area and their vehicle for their safety and to preserve the integrity of the area for investigative purposes. 

Law enforcement and the legality of accessing the information on black boxes

In cases of car collisions, law enforcement is often one of the first groups of individuals interested in viewing the information on the black box. For drivers, it’s important to understand that the information on the black box is your personal information. In an incident that happened in in Peel Region, in Ontario, back in 2018, two Superior Court judges ruled that Peel Region police did not have the right to retrieve or access the information on the black box, since they had not obtained a search warrant, nor informed the owner of the vehicle. If you’re ever in a similar situation, understand what your rights are and what the police can request of you in the case of an investigation.

Know your vehicle

A black box can be an indispensable piece of insurance for drivers in the event of an accident. There is invaluable information that is automatically recorded that can then be used for future insurance claims or legal challenges. On the flip side, that same information could be used to indict you if you are in the wrong. 

As with everything else in your possession, knowledge is key. Knowing when the car was manufactured can give you a rough idea of whether your vehicle has a black box or not, and a commercial mechanic or similar professional can confirm where it is on your vehicle and how you might be able to access it if the need should arise. Lastly, understand your right to information and privacy as it pertains to the information about your vehicle in your black box, in situations like accidents or collisions.

Have you or a loved one been involved in a serious car accident?

Remember, in some cases it’s important to obtain and download the black box data from the vehicles involved in the accident in order to determine the cause of the crash. In most cases, the defendant’s insurance company will agree to retrieve the black box in the defendant vehicle, but in some cases, downloading the black box data might need a court order. The data obtained from vehicle black boxes can be extremely helpful in determining liability after a motor vehicle accident. Engineers can analyze the data collected from your black box and use that information to testify in court as an expert witness.

If you or a loved one has involved in a serious accident our car accident lawyers can help. Matt Lalande has recovered tens of millions in damages for plaintiffs in Hamilton and throughout Ontario since 2003. Call us today with any questions you may have by calling us no matter where you are in Ontario at 1-844-LALANDE (525-2633) or local in the Hamilton / Burlington / Niagara regions at 905-333-8888. Alternatively, you can send us a confidential email through our website.

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Reference: https://www.canadianunderwriter.ca/legal/do-police-need-a-search-warrant-to-obtain-a-vehicles-event-data-recorder-1004174834/

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