NHTSA notes problem with black box reliability

| 6/9/2003

Vehicle data recorders or black boxes have numerous technical problems that can hinder crash investigations, according to a new government analysis.

In 2002, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tried to analyze post-crash information from 684 vehicles equipped with data recorders. In 60 percent of those cases, information about the vehicle was downloaded with no problems. But 40 percent of the time, the data wasn't available, according to data presented Thursday at a conference for auto engineers, The Associated Press reported.

In 6 percent of those cases, crash damage prevented investigators from reaching the recorder. Technical problems, such as bolts that required special tools for removal, prevented access in 31 percent of cases, while software problems were the culprit in 23 percent of cases.

Augustus “Chip” Chidester, a crash investigator with NHTSA, said the recorders needed to be reasonably priced. He also said the recorders should comply with standards and include the same type of data.

“Right now, we have to carry at least 20 different cables (to an accident scene),” Chidester said. “I want as uniform a system as I can get.”

Robert Kreeb, a technology consultant who represented the auto industry at the conference, said automakers should be allowed to develop voluntary standards.

Kreeb said other issues should be considered, such as who owns the data and whether insurance companies should have access to it.

Data recorders are now in an estimated 25 million vehicles in the United States, Chidester said. That's about 11 percent of the 221 million vehicles on the road in 2000.

General Motors Corp. began installing the devices in 1994, Chidester said, while Ford Motor Co. began installing them in 2001.