The price of silence in vehicle and highway safety

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Automakers market “safety” and their vehicles are everywhere. We expect them to be safe and keep buying them like extra pairs of shoes. 

We buy more than we need.  Right now over 50 million are in motion. Who could imagine life without them?  

Yet, nowhere in the world do we have the freedom to travel in them safely.  

Ironically, progress in motor vehicle injury prevention stands out as one of the ten significant public health achievements of the 20th Century.   

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention “although six times as many Americans drive today as did in 1925, covering ten times as many miles in eleven times as many vehicles, the annual death rate for motor vehicle crashes has decreased 90 percent.”

Despite these improvements approximately 32,000+ Americans of all ages still die each year as a result of motor vehicle trauma. Automobile crashes remain the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of five and 24. An estimated 2.2 million people were injured in motor vehicle crashes in 2011. There are 20,000 tow-a-ways a day, every day.

Motor vehicle crashes are a significant public health problem worldwide with a death or serious injury every six seconds. They are not “accidents,” and are both predictable and preventable. Much more can be done to prevent them and the injuries that result.  

However, measuring the problem can be difficult due to the lack of consistency in the use of terminology and data elements for motor vehicle crashes. Without consistency, we cannot monitor and track trends to determine the scope of the problem.

Today’s electronics-intensive-vehicle is fundamentally different from the mostly mechanical vehicles of the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, automotive event data recorders (EDRs), commonly termed “black boxes” are crucial for standardizing data elements for motor vehicle crash surveillance. However, they must be used fairly and access controlled by the vehicle owner. When a consumer leaves the lot with a new vehicle they should own more than just the vehicle, they should own the data the vehicle generates.

One reason we need access control is that a variety of electronic tools are manufactured and marketed to re-engineer vehicle networks, reset odometers and tamper or erase electronic data via the vehicle's diagnostic port which is generally unsecure and prone to misuse of the original safety and emissions diagnostic related purpose.

Better quality and timely incidence and prevalence estimates can be useful for a wide audience, including policymakers, researchers, public health practitioners, victim advocates, service providers, and media professionals. However, if EDR data is not protected at the data source it will not be useful to NHTSA as there will always be questions about the legitimacy of the data.

Safety and injury prevention should always be among our highest public health priorities as a nation.  Our national commitment to reducing injuries and deaths from motor vehicle crashes are important objectives. Most agree that effective public health policy must be based on sound scientific evidence.

EDR technologies provide that evidence if the data is secured at the source, thereby expanding and solidifying the knowledge needed for informed decision making that can improve the health of every citizen involved in a crash.  

Last year approximately 22 million Americans were involved in a motor vehicle crash. The trend this year is increasing.

Therefore, we need EDR standardization, legislation and regulation to fully secure the EDR data at the source and protect the privacy rights of owners and drivers.  

Specifically, at the end of the day, vehicle owners must “own” the EDR data, become “aware” of EDRs existence and functioning and must “control access” to the EDR data in their vehicles.  

Finally, Congress should ban sealing evidence in court cases when that evidence is specific to enhancing vehicle and highway safety.

Kowalick is president of AIRMIKA, Inc., in Southern Pines, North Carolina. He is author of FATAL EXIT: The Automotive Black Box Debate (Wiley/IEEE) and widely recognized as an expert on automotive EDRs since 1997. 

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