Dash Cams and Black Boxes

15 Mar

From www.mcgeepost.com .Copyright © 2013 Michael H. McGee. All rights reserved. Please feel free to share or re-post all or part non-commercially, hopefully with attribution.

The comet which landed in Russia recently may have brought us some outer-space or at least space-age technology which has not really been considered up to now. The comet’s explosion revealed the hitherto unnoticed phenomenon of the wide-scale use of dashboard cameras in small-town northern Russia, one of the more remote places on earth.

Dash Cams are small video cameras that are placed on the dashboards or windshields of cars or trucks to record video on an endless loop, with or without sound. Dash cams can be powered either from the car’s cigarette lighter or from a built-in battery.

A trip to the web site http://www.nextag.com/dashboard-camera/products-html shows 202 varieties of dashboard cameras currently available for purchase in the US, or for that matter anywhere in the world. So far I’ve never seen a car with a dash cam, though. It’s time we got on board the Soviet dash-cam craze, and get each car equipped with its own dash cam. This new tech will be a boon for the electronics industry and for the auto insurance industry; and a burden for personal injury lawyers, who thrive on lengthy, expensive and uncertain examinations of who was at fault in an accident. (As a retired lawyer, I know how we work.)

According to http://www.zetronix.com/, which sells higher end dash cams, “when an auto accident occurs, in most of the cases it’s not clear which of the parties are at fault unless there is specific physical evidence of negligence, which is very rare. In a typical case the only way to really find out what happened is when one of the parties involved in the collision has a dash cam. A dash cam will take any ambiguity from any accident. Every car, truck and SUV on the road should have a dash cam. They are inexpensive and can save you thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars if there is ever an accident.”

Additionally, when a driver has a dash cam, it’s more likely the person will pay closer attention to what they are doing while driving, knowing their movements are being recorded, even if voluntarily. It’s important that the dash cam does not have a viewing screen visible to the driver (except when backing up) or this will become one more distraction like texting.

Ultimately we’ll move this discussion to talk about mandatory automobile “black boxes,” which will be an even greater motivator for drivers to take care of safety while driving. Voluntary measures are good, yet are not enough to motivate anyone other than geeks and safety freaks.

We need to treat each automobile accident that involves personal injury or death as seriously as an airplane accident. We need to have first responders who have their own cameras, which are capable of quickly making an evidentiary quality video of the details of each serious crash scene before the vehicles are moved. The involved vehicles and their dash cams need to be impounded into a secure warehouse for meticulous examination and cataloging by an “Auto Safety Board.” The dash cams of any vehicles which may have recorded any part of the accident should be taken into temporary custody, for downloading and return to the owner.

It is much less safe to ride in a car than on an airplane. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2011 in the US alone there were 32,367 deaths by auto accident, an average of 89 per day. More than two million persons were injured in auto accidents during the same year. We tend as a nation to totally ignore the deaths and mangling caused by motor vehicle accidents, and the implementation of new safety measures is a very low priority. Compared to the airways, though, the highways are a slaughterhouse. We ignore the slaughter and the maiming because we need automobiles so badly that we can’t even think about the possibility of death or maiming while driving.

According to the National Transportation Safety Board, in 2011, for the second year in a row, there were no fatal accidents involving scheduled air carriers or scheduled commuter operations. Each of the grand total of 485 US air fatalities in 2011 was in general aviation, including private light craft, charter, air taxi, air tour, and air medical operations. Yet how many people have a “fear of flying?”

Where are our priorities? Here in the twenty-first century we have the technological means to monitor automobile travel more closely, yet we don’t have the will to do so. When will we ever learn?

Maybe today is not the day we’ll learn. It’s not as easy to get people to buy and use dash cams as it is for me to say it’s a good idea. As I was writing this someone said to me, “So does this mean you’re going to get a dash cam for your car?” I actually froze, clamped up, at this question. Desperate, futile thoughts flew through my mind.

I’m a safe driver, I thought. If I get a dash cam, does this mean I’m preparing to be involved in an accident? It’s kind of grisly, came my unbidden thoughts, for me to gird myself for an accident I never expect to have. And I’ll be the only one out there who has one, which will make me look weird and even more like a nerd than I already am.

It was only later that I came out of my acutely self-centered panic thoughts. Then I realized that having a dash cam might help create an evidentiary record if any driver around me was involved in an accident which was within the view of my dash cam. I really don’t mind the idea of being called as a witness if I see or record the details of a serious auto accident. Civic duty, and all that.

In addition, I realized that there are a lot of crimes committed in and around cars, including car-jacking. If a potential attacker saw that there was a video camera in the car he might be a little less eager to approach the car for purposes of violence. And if he failed to notice the camera, there might be a very good face-shot of the perpetrator recorded on video.

Great Britain has courageously taken the lead in installing Closed Circuit TV (CCTV) cameras on street corners and around public parks and other areas. These cameras are typically up high and have wide angle lenses. They have had a dramatic effect in reducing street crime and in helping to track the movements of fleeing criminals. New York and other US cities are beginning to get on the CCTV bandwagon, though in the US we are trailing far behind our neighbors across the pond. Dash cams are simply a smaller version of a CCTV camera.

One problem with endless-loop dash cams is that even with a wide-angle lens the current crop of cameras can only see maybe a field of 120 degrees around the front of a car. So they won’t help much if the accident involves the side or rear of the car. A way of improving the field of vision would be to hard-mount the camera near the center of the car, about where the dome light is.

Even better would be to have two cameras, one pointed forward and one to the rear. The rear camera could be also connected to a screen visible to the driver, so the driver can get a better view of what’s going on behind the car; like a kid in the road or a tight parking situation. Some upscale cars already have a rear-view camera, but it’s mounted too low to pick up all the area around the rear of the car.

In addition to providing evidence, dash cams might easily record some really peculiar behavior on the road, or some catastrophically stupid street activities, which might go viral on You Tube. Get your fifteen minutes of fame, folks!

Even with the utterly minuscule chance of death in an airplane accident in the US, all aircraft are required to have sealed black boxes on board, which can be retrieved and read by investigators after an air crash. It’s likely that the data which has been retrieved by these black boxes from crash sites over a period of many years has substantially contributed to the now nearly perfect safety record of aircraft.

Up until the twenty-first century we really didn’t have the technology available to even consider putting a black box in each automobile. Building black boxes was too expensive, the component parts were too big, and they required too much power to operate. Back in the 1990’s proposed boxes would loop for only twenty seconds; twenty minutes is a feasible loop time with current technology. Now we have very small electronic parts which are inexpensive and use little power. It’s time to put our most advanced micro-electronics to work on the vast problem of highway safety. Mass production will dramatically reduce the cost per unit.

There’s been a lot of discussion of the use of “black boxes” on cars, similar to their present use on aircraft. Some people were against using these black boxes because they could end up as evidence in a car crash lawsuit, and also could violate privacy. These types of concerns seem unwarranted, since the state has always had the power to impose conditions on the drivers of motor vehicles in the interest of public safety.

The black boxes on aircraft are multipurpose devices. They record among other things technical data and pilot conversations for a looped period of twenty minutes just prior to a crash. A conversational monitor in a private vehicle would definitely violate privacy, but airline pilots surrender their privacy when on the job.

Automobile black boxes could include a locational monitor such as a transponder which would send out a position and emergency signal in the event of a crash. They could include a speed and steering movement indicator which would show spatial details in last five or ten minutes before a crash, and some way of indicating if a vehicle system failure was involved in the crash. A record of longer-term movements would be helpful in alcohol related crashes, or when people are asleep at the wheel or joyriding. Short last second movement tracking would be helpful in seeing who swerved and who applied brakes, etc., just before the accident.

In addition, drivers will definitely be more careful while driving when they know their poor driving or carelessness will be on record if they are in an accident or stopped for a traffic violation.

Today auto makers currently have the technology to make auto black boxes, and they do in fact install them on some vehicles without the knowledge of the owner.

Since at least 1998 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has been in possession of technology which amounts to black boxes. They call these devices EDRs (Event Data Recorders). In 1998 and 1999, the agency denied petitions from its staff for rulemaking asking to require installation of EDRs in all new motor vehicles. The petitions were denied “because the motor vehicle industry was already voluntarily moving in the direction recommended by the petitioners”, and because the agency believed “this area presents some issues that are, at least for the present time, best addressed in a non-regulatory context.”

Didn’t anyone learn from the struggle over seat belts? In the 1960’s visionaries like Lee Iacocca started offering seat belts to new car customers on a voluntary basis. Almost nobody volunteered to pay the small extra price, even though evidence showed that seat belts were effective in reducing death and injury in auto accidents. Seat belts didn’t really start being used until after the first seat belt law was passed, a federal statute which took effect on January 1, 1968. Now we really couldn’t live without seat belts.

The lesson is that no one, I mean no one, is going to buy a black box and have it installed on their car voluntarily, in a “non-regulatory context.” Either black boxes are required by law, or they really won’t exist at all.

When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration uses the term EDR (Event Data Recorder), they are referring to a device installed in a motor vehicle to record technical vehicle information for a brief period of time before, during and after a crash. The NHTSA describes their EDR devices very specifically. For instance, EDRs may record (1) pre-crash vehicle dynamics and system status, (2) driver inputs, (3) vehicle crash signature, (4) restraint usage/deployment status, and (5) post-crash data such as the activation of an automatic collision notification (ACN) system. NHTSA EDRs do not include any type of device that either makes an audio or video record, or logs data such as hours of service for truck operators. EDRs are devices which record information related to an “event.” In the context of this site the event is defined as a highway vehicle crash.

We must use all the technology that is available, at the cutting edge, to improve the safety of highway travel. An endless loop black box will freeze-frame when the car is stopped. It will stop also when a car is hit and decelerates, flies through the air and crashes, and when it rolls or turns over. The police could even have devices to remotely read the black boxes during a traffic stop.

Inside the black box will be an attitude recorder, showing the pitch and roll of the vehicle for the last twenty minutes. There will also be inside, a recorder showing all steering wheel movements and speed changes for the last twenty minutes.

The black box must be sealed so that it cannot be tampered with by the driver. The data must be retrievable and viewable by the police when a traffic stop is made or at an accident site. A law must be passed making a black box speed display admissible in court as evidence of speeding.

The courts could require a person convicted of Driving Under the Influence or reckless driving to waive his right of privacy as a condition of receiving any sort of driving privileges during the term of his or her probation. Then a dash cam or black box which records the face and the speech of the driver could be hard installed in the car. The person could be hauled in on visual or oral evidence of drunkenness, even without waiting for a collision to occur.

Also, why should police be the ones to investigate auto accidents? They should be involved only at the outset to determine if criminal activity such as speeding or DUI is suspected. A rapid-response auto accident investigation team of civilian specialists should then be called to the scene. These civilians, like CSI techs, should be highly trained in accident reconstruction and the evidentiary handling of black boxes, and should have all of the latest equipment. This would free up the police from a lot of activity which has very little to do with law enforcement.

One Response to “Dash Cams and Black Boxes”

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