Your Black Box

November 15, 2004 -- Posted 4:00 p.m.CDT

Memphis, TN -- The sight of an airbag deploying brings some comfort to motorists about their safety behind the wheel.

"It deploys and slows you down," said Saturn of Memphis technician Scott Yates.

Yates says among other things, consumers typically question them about Saturn's airbag systems, so much so, many cars are now being equipped with dual airbags.

"They can fire one stage of propellant, and it comes out real fast, and the other one I guess has less because it comes out real slower," said Yates.

What many consumers don't realize, the mechanism that controls your airbags also possesses a recording device.

"There's a spring that's pretty much rolled up with a weight inside of it and it's pre-set and it takes a certain amount of force that the engineers came up with that's equal to a certain amount of speed, and you sling it forward and it causes the contacts to connect, and the computer just takes off from there," said Yates.

This computerized system contains what many people have nicknamed a black box, like the ones found in airplanes. They're estimated to be in 25 million vehicles in the United States, and they monitor several things right before a crash happens.

"It would have data that would say if your seat belt was hooked up, how fast you were going, how long it was running, whether or not the engine was still running, temperature, anything it could still get at the point where it deployed," said Yates.

Back in August the National Transportation Safety Board recommended mandating that all vehicles be equipped with these black boxes. According to Car and Driver Magazine, about 15% of vehicles now have them, and up to 90% of 2004 vehicles have some sort of these recording devices. General Motors began installing them in 1994 and Ford in 2001.

Reports show civil liberties groups, like the ACLU are unhappy about the black boxes because they say it raises privacy issues. Opponents argue these devices were installed so easily without people knowing.

"They know they're more computerized, that's about it," said Yates.

Privacy advocates worry these black boxes could be used as evidence in court.

"That question has not been decided in Arkansas yet, but my prediction is that if that comes up in the proper case, that would be legal evidence," said Jonesboro Attorney Bill Bristow.

Investigators caution they have seen some problems with the black boxes. In 60% of cases, the information was downloaded correctly. In 40%, crash damage caused technical problems, and the information could not be restored.

"We would have to have an expert to show that this is reliable, that this is good science, good engineering, that it has been peer reviewed," said Bristow.

In light of some of these court cases across the country, the National Traffic Safety Administration has put together a proposal that would require car manufacturers to include a statement in owners' manuals telling people that the data recorders do exist in their vehicles.