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Dash Cams and Black Boxes

15 Mar

From .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 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, 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.

Assault Weapons and High Capacity Magazines

9 Jan

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

Let’s talk about the Sandy Hook School massacre. Far too many pundits and politicians have cynically used the tragedy to launch inflammatory rhetoric to push their pre-existing partisan agenda on gun control in the United States. In its ongoing coverage of the Sandy Hook tragedy the press interviewed politicians and other commentators on almost an hourly basis concerning the need for stronger gun laws in our country: as if stronger gun control laws would make any difference to a loathsome man determined to kill innocent people. It’s a complete illusion that additional gun control laws would prevent such massacres.

Look at Great Britain, which has a similar cultural background to ours, and has always had extremely restrictive gun control laws, and where citizens do not have the right to bear arms as we do. A massacre occurred in Hungerford, Berkshire, England, in 1987. The gunman was armed with two semi-automatic rifles and a handgun. He shot and killed sixteen people including his mother, and wounded fifteen others, then fatally shot himself.

A massacre at the Dunblane, Scotland, Primary School occurred in 1996. The gunman was armed with four handguns, and shot and killed sixteen children and one adult before committing suicide. A killing spree occurred in Cumbria, England, in 2010, when a lone gunman killed 12 people and injured 11 others before killing himself.

As much as we may want to believe that the ready availability of guns in the United States is responsible for the actions of deranged individuals, the overriding fact is that even in Great Britain people who want to commit mayhem will find the guns to do the job. The problem arises when someone decides to pull the trigger of a gun with the intent to commit a crime. Tighter gun laws will definitely not change anyone’s mind when a person is bent on destruction.

In a recent interview with NBC’s Jimmy Fallon, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke of the Sandy Hook shooting, and reminded us that 33 people are murdered in America with guns every single day of the year. His plan to remedy the problem is to require all gun purchasers to undergo a criminal background check, and to ban assault weapons and ammunition magazines that hold over 10 rounds. He’s joining a national movement, spewing anti-gun rhetoric intended to reinstate the ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines which was rejected by Congress in 2004.

What if we applied his logic to other areas of modern life? On average 93 people are killed in automobile accidents in the U.S. each day. This is three times more people than are killed by guns. So why doesn’t Mr. Bloomberg spend three times as much energy complaining about automobiles?

According to an NBC News article, The Congressional Research Service in 2009 estimated there were 310 million firearms in the United States, not including weapons owned by the military. 114 million of these were handguns, 110 million were rifles (including high capacity assault-type rifles), and 86 million were shotguns. In that same year, the Census bureau stated the population of people in America at 305,529,237.

These 310 million firearms come in all sizes and shapes. No one can say how many of these firearms are assault rifles or have ammunition magazines that hold more than ten rounds. These firearms are not likely to disappear, whatever their configuration and whatever the law says.

Actually, New York state laws have always made it a felony to possess ammunition magazines that hold more than ten rounds, unless the magazine was manufactured prior to 1994. There is obviously no evidence that magazines built before 1994 are less dangerous to the public than those built after 1994, yet this date made the difference between an honest citizen and a felon. A bill recently passed by the state legislature maintained the ten-round clip size limit, and reduced the number of bullets allowed in a clip to seven rounds. These recent changes emphasize the pure mendacity and deception of the whole legal scheme.

If I have in my possession in New York State a newly made ordinary fourteen-round magazine for a pistol, even though I have no pistol and there is no ammunition in the magazine, then my status changes from honest citizen to a criminal subject to a prison sentence. It’s not just four rounds of ammunition; it’s an empty space where four rounds of ammunition could potentially be stored. This law is an abomination; a status crime with no relation to public safety; it should be declared unconstitutional; and now the anti-gun lobby wants to impose this law on all citizens of the United States.

Such a ban on assault rifles and high capacity magazines is simply another way of saying that the government doesn’t trust the millions of law-abiding gun owners. Give them a pistol that holds 14 rounds of ammunition, or an assault rifle that holds 30 rounds, and all these citizens will sooner or later abandon morality and begin to conceive of plans to shoot ten or twenty people at a time. Armageddon is just around the corner if we don’t act now. If we can restrict citizens to ten round magazines, the urge to kill won’t come over them and we’ll all be safe.

It’s an exercise in blatant political cynicism for Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords to use Gabby’s injured body and Mother Teresa reputation to make her the poster child for why we need to ban assault rifles and high capacity magazines. Her situation was a single tragic event. Because of her single tragic event, and a few other single tragic events, they are saying, we should not trust any of the American people to handle their weapons responsibly. I take her appalling assessment of the sanity of the American people as a personal affront to me.

What she, and other advocates of tighter gun control based on a few tragic scenarios, are saying is utter sophistry. It’s like saying that because there have been a few airplane crashes that killed more than 200 people each, we should stop trusting our pilots to handle high-capacity aircraft. The government should limit the carrying capacity of passenger aircraft to 10 passengers. Then when those untrustworthy pilots muck things up again, not so many people will be killed.

There is absolutely no credible evidence that assault weapons or large-capacity magazines add to the rate of gun violence in the United States.  The February 1997 American Journal of Public Health Vol. 87, No. 2, p.297, offers an example of the spurious nature of the evidence in favor of banning assault weapons:

“Assault pistol recoveries by the Baltimore City Police Department increased from 7 pistols in 1989 (0.5% [7/1391] of all recovered firearms) to 44 pistols in 1994 (2.5% [44/1726] of all recovered guns). In the first 6 months of 1995, following implementation of the Maryland law, assault pistol recoveries fell by 44.5% from the preceding year to 24 guns (1.45% [24/1658] of all weapons recovered); Our data provide a strong, early indication that the Maryland assault pistol ban is working-as a result of the ban, fewer assault pistols are being used by criminals. On the basis of the results of this analysis, efforts to repeal or weaken similar state or federal statutes should be suspended.”

There is no statistical significance whatsoever in the demonstrated “44.5% decrease” in assault pistol recoveries, based on the minuscule overall numbers. It is beyond absurd that the authors would even pretend to believe that these numbers provide evidence that the assault pistol ban is working. The study does provide some evidence that criminals are following the law (how totally fabulous is that!) What’s even more absurd is that such studies are actually accepted by legislators and members of congress as evidence to support a ban on assault weapons and on high capacity magazines.

The fear of “assault weapons” and “high capacity magazines” is a delusion, and law-abiding citizens should not be made into criminals on the basis of mythical anxieties.

What are the limitations on the data on gun ownership, gun usage and crime? A 2005 data review done by a panel of criminologists, statisticians, and epidemiologists for the National Research Council concluded that there is a lack of reliable data and “in some instances—firearms violence prevention, for example—there are no data at all.”

The NRC report said that “none of the existing data sources, by itself or in combination with others, provides comprehensive, timely, and accurate data needed to answer many important questions pertaining to the role of firearms in violent events.”

A lengthy study entitled “Firearms and Violence,” was sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Joyce Foundation, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. These are not gun nuts or firearms apologists. They were searching for evidence, wherever the evidence might lead.

This study was made available to Congress in 2004, and may have played a part in the non-renewal at that time of the assault weapon and high capacity magazine ban.  The findings were that current research and data on firearms and violent crime are too weak to support strong conclusions about the effects of various measures to prevent and control gun violence.  Data limitations are immense in the study of firearms and violence, the study emphasized.

There has been no improvement since 2004 in the “data limitations” and “lack of reliable data” described by the government’s own researchers. I defy anyone to demonstrate in a statistically significant manner that there is any overall reduction in the rate of gun violence which can be attributed to the banning of assault weapons or high capacity magazines.

The below US Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics chart shows several things. One, homicide rates by “assault weapons” in the US have always been minimal. Assault weapons are normally not handguns, and thus are lumped for statistical purposes with other long guns, thus falling in the chart category labeled “other guns” shown with the purple line. The purple line has remained low and relatively stable since 1975, with no statistically significant or even minimally meaningful variation during the time assault weapons were banned between 1994 and 2004.

Chart 01

Now looking at the red line on the chart, labeled “Handguns,” it would be easy to fly to the assumption that the 1994 to 2004 ban on “handguns with magazines larger than ten rounds” was responsible for the reduction in murders by handguns during this period. The chart data does not support this assumption, though, since it only reports the use of handguns, and not the use of “handguns with high capacity magazines.”

The more likely assumption from the first chart is that hugely successful law enforcement efforts in arresting and incarcerating violent criminals, as shown in the second chart below, were responsible for the drop in handgun homicides.

Chart 02

Another concern a reader might have is that the first chart ends in 2005, just after the assault weapon and high capacity magazine bans ended. Did the numbers rise after the bans were ended? According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, homicides by firearm in the US actually decreased further after 2005. In 2006 there were 11,360 homicides by all kinds of firearms in the US. In 2007, 11,630; in 2008, 11,030; in 2009, 10,300; in 2010, 9960.

Once again, we find that evidentiary support for the past and proposed bans on assault weapons and high capacity magazines is totally lacking from the statistics. Only histrionics can be wielded in support of these mythical cures. It’s a national disgrace for us to callously incite people into unthinking action, by reciting single tragic instances such as the massacres at Sandy Hook and Aurora as a proof of concept.

Once again, we can undoubtedly thank our law enforcement community for their herculean efforts to reduce the overall levels of violent crime nationwide. Tougher background checks on gun purchasers may have also made a difference, although there’s once again no empirical data which shows that more stringent background checks will keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals. It mostly means that violent criminals will have to pay more for their guns in the black market.