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Safety officials urge black boxes for vehicles

Sonia Pascher sets flowers in the middle of the street in July, 2003 as she returns to the site of a deadly car crash at the Farmers' Market in Santa Monica, Calif., one day after 86-year-old George Weller lost control of his car and barreled for three blocks through the crowded street market.Damian Dovarganes / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

The government should require data recorders in all passenger vehicles, federal safety officials said Tuesday in a recommendation arising from the investigation of a car crash that killed 10 people and injured 63.

National Transportation Safety Board investigators concluded the 86-year-old driver had stepped on the gas instead of the brake and plowed into a farmers market in Santa Monica, Calif., on July 16, 2003.

They came to that determination without testimony from the driver, George Weller, who refused on his lawyer's advice to talk with the investigators.

The board concluded investigators could have gained a better scientific understanding of Weller's behavior had his 1992 Buick LeSabre been outfitted with an event data recorder, or "black box."

"We believe very strongly that vehicles should have a black box," NTSB chairman Ellen Engleman Conners said

In the Santa Monica crash, investigators came to their decision on Weller's actions after ruling out mechanical failure, weather, fatigue, alcohol or drugs. Weller hired a lawyer to help him fight vehicular manslaughter charges and civil lawsuits.

The NTSB recommended black boxes two months after the top federal auto safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said it saw no need to require them because automakers are adding them voluntarily to more models.

Flight data recorders, which despite the black box characterization are bright orange, are aboard all commercial aircraft. They can collect more than a thousand pieces of data about an airliner that investigators can review to determine the cause of a crash.

Proponents of black boxes in passenger vehicles say they could provide investigators with an exhaustive database that could highlight flaws in auto and road designs.

Critics worry about who would get access to that information. Privacy advocate David Sobel said millions of drivers on the road now have no idea that their vehicles are collecting data.

"They certainly don't know what's being collected, how long it's being retained and who can get access to it under what circumstances," said Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

AAA, the nation's largest auto club, would support requiring black boxes only if protections were in place to ensure the data are used just for safety research and can't be traced to specific drivers, spokesman Mantill Williams said.

The highway safety agency says between 65 percent and 90 percent of 2004 vehicles have some sort of recording ability. About 15 percent of vehicles have data recorders. Different models collect different amounts of data. Some record nothing more than how fast a vehicle sped up or slowed down, while others collect a range of information about the driver's actions and the condition of a vehicle's mechanical systems.

Data have been used by the highway safety agency in safety research and by law enforcement officials investigating car crashes.

In Massachusetts, crash data have been used to bolster evidence in several prosecutions. And in California, a law took effect on July 1 that requires manufacturers to tell buyers when their new cars have black boxes. In most cases, the law requires an owner's permission before authorities can get access to the data.

The NTSB has the power only to investigate and recommend. Any requirements would have to be imposed by NHTSA.

The highway safety agency said in June that requiring black boxes was unnecessary but proposed that by 2008 the auto industry should outfit their vehicles voluntarily with recorders that would collect 42 pieces of accident data, including speed, braking, seat belt use and the time required for air bags to deploy.

The NTSB said black boxes could help explain accidents caused by "unintended acceleration" in which a vehicle suddenly speeds up. This can be caused by a driver sitting in the wrong position or mistakenly stepping on the accelerator rather than the brake, as the NTSB contends the Santa Monica driver did.

Those who believe older drivers should have to prove their driving ability cited the accident as an example of the tragedy that can result when people are too old to drive safely. The safety board could not determine whether Weller's age played a role in the accident, focusing instead on the need for stronger barriers at regularly recurring outdoor events such as street fairs and farmers markets.

Engleman Conners said the safety board maintains its interest in the issue of older drivers. The board decided to send an investigation team to Santa Monica because it hoped to learn whether the driver's age contributed to the accident.