You Probably Don't Even Know the EDR Exists
By John Steinbachs, Ottawa Sun
In early November, OPP collision investigator Robyn Howard arrived on the
scene of a vehicle rollover south of Sharbot Lake.
A GMC van lay on its roof in a ditch on County Rd. 38. The crash left the
70-year-old male driver dead.
After finishing the standard investigation, including speed and tire track
measurements and taking a witness statement, Howard downloaded information
from the vehicle's event data recorder -- a little-known device that has
ability to revolutionize crash investigations and provide vehicle engineers
with new life-saving data.
An EDR acts similarly to flight data recorders on aircraft -- the so-called
black boxes -- recording information about the last few moments before a
A day after the crash, Howard used the little box and a laptop computer to
download the information from the van. After analyzing the data, she
determined the driver was going only slightly faster than the speed limit
allows and was not wearing his seatbelt.
"I think it's a great asset for us as an investigative tool," says Howard.
What this does is support or back up what our investigation has told us.
s just a secondary backup."
EDRs are being used more and more by police traffic collision investigators
throughout Ontario. Here in Ottawa, police have trained one traffic
investigator to use the system to retrieve data and the OPP are considered
leaders in the field.
Law enforcement's interest in the devices and the data they record has
primarily because so many Canadians have some type of EDR installed in
cars -- millions by the estimate of General Motors Canada, which began
installing EDRs in the 1990s.
The devices are about the size of a video cassette and are usually
under the front passenger seat.
In the event of a crash that causes the air bags to be deployed, the device
in newer model GM vehicles will record the last five seconds of activity
The EDR tells an investigator how fast the vehicle was travelling before
crash, the engine speed, brake activity and whether or not the driver had
his foot on the gas. It can also determine whether the driver was wearing
seatbelt, among other things.
PRINTED ONTO GRAPH
Once the device is retrieved, the information can be downloaded and printed
onto a graph for the investigator or crash reconstructionist.
The list of GM vehicles with EDRs on board has grown year by year, with
virtually all new GM vehicles equipped.
Ford installs a similar device on some of its vehicles and Honda installs
similar device in all of its new models, but neither of them has proven to
be as useful to police.
And unless you've spent some time flipping through your owner's manual
lately, you probably don't even know the EDR exists.
The recorders, which are part of the airbag deployment system, were first
developed to provide manufacturers and researchers with data on crashes,
says GM product expert Bill Davies. Laboratory tests that hurtle cars into
wall with a crash test dummy behind the wheel just can't replace a real
crash on a real road, he adds.
"When the first air-bag-equipped cars started hitting the streets in
1989-1990, we wanted some way to verify (that) the way the vehicle
during a crash out in the field was also the way that you had designed it
"I think the important point, from a law enforcement point of view, is an
EDR sits in a car and it's an objective bystander. So, depending on what
situation is, it will shed light where no light could be shed," says
The devices also alert GM to vehicle problems that need to be fixed.
"In 1999, we actually had a recall campaign to recalibrate the air-bag
modules on our Cavaliers and Sunfires and we did that because we had access
to this information," says Davies. "We realized that you could get in a
situation where if you were on a really rough road ... that you could
actually fool the system into thinking you were in a collision.
"If we did not have the capability to be able to read those boxes, we would
have never understood what the problem was and we would have never been
to call all those cars back in and recalibrate them."
It's clear the recorders can provide invaluable information to the
automobile manufacturer and safety researchers, who can use it to determine
driver reactions and behaviours and vehicle performance.
But nagging questions about privacy and how the information is used has
"I don't want to hear anybody say that this is some kind of a safety
says Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Greenspon. "Because if it was a safety
then the consumer would know that it was in their car -- and right now I
venture to say the overwhelming majority of drivers have no idea that this
recorder is in their passenger seat."
Instead, he believes the device was developed and installed in order to
cover manufacturers in cases where vehicle defects are the focus of
The company that builds the EDR retrieval system agrees the devices are
useful in legal cases.
"A lot of lawsuits are dropped because of it. A customer will claim a
vehicle didn't function properly in a crash, but then the law enforcement
officer or someone else shows them that they were going 180 km/h," says
James Kerr, a spokesman at Vetronix.
Greenspon, a civil and criminal lawyer, says he has never come across a
in court where the EDR has been used, but he believes the devices will
become more regulated by authorities and more popular in police
He sees a time when the devices will become a mandatory standard, such as
breathalyzer tests, and failure to have and maintain an EDR in your vehicle
could be an offence.
Greenspon says he's concerned people can incriminate themselves without
knowing they're doing it.
"There are literally thousands if not hundreds of thousands of Canadians
driving around with these ... bugging devices and they don't even know it.
"We're already on the slope with the cameras at the red lights. These
devices are in cars and people don't even know about them and the warrants
are being issued to obtain the information about them. It's a small hop
that to being in all cars and for the police to be able to access them
whenever they want."
The Canadian Automobile Association also has some misgivings.
"If you look at it overall from the safety point and a research point, I
think it's a good thing. It's like the black boxes in a aircraft," says
Rosalinda Fischer, a spokeswoman for CAA.
"Our major concern with them is that, first, people don't know that they're
in their car. They don't know what they're going to be used for. They don't
know if they can be used in court against them. Which is not to say that's
bad thing, I mean, if it's evidence of what happened, that's good," she
"People have the right to know, and just because it's printed in your
vehicle owner's manual, how many people actually read it and know that the
thing is even there?"
Ottawa police Const. Steve Desjourdy was sent on a training course to learn
how to operate Vetronix's data retrieval system, but the Ottawa Police
Service doesn't yet own its own software kit, which sells for about $2,500
Desjourdy says while the information that EDRs can provide does interest
police, the recorders have only been able to complement investigations and
have not yet provided pivotal information.
"It's a complement to the investigation. We don't just download the EDR for
the fun of it," he says.
But he says the device could be especially useful when dealing with
accidents where there are no witnesses. While taking the course, he learned
of an Eastern Ontario collision between a car and train that left an
man dead in The man died instantly when his rented late-model GM vehicle
hit by a train near Monkland.
The initial investigation left relatives fearing that the man's death was
actually a suicide.
But when investigators accessed the EDR in the man's car, they found he had
been braking before the crash. While the matter was still tragic, it did
provide police and family with some answers.
To access the EDR in an investigation, police need to get a warrant, says
"We don't use the event data recorder as a fishing expedition," he says.
The investigation still needs to occur. I haven't used an event data
recorder to charge somebody. It hasn't happened so far."
NEED A WARRANT
Ottawa police have used the EDRs in only a handful of cases, says Sgt. Bill
Murrell. While police need a warrant, the nature of the crashes has
sometimes made the warrant unnecessary.
"If the (suspect) is the guy that's dead, then we don't need a warrant
because there's not going to be any charges, so it's really an
tool. And in most cases, that's what has happened."
Vetronix sees Canada as a growing market for its product, says Kerr.
"It helps law enforcement do their job better. So it is quite helpful and
actually Canada has accepted it a little more rapidly than the U.S., in
terms of accident reconstructionists," he says. "There's possibly more in
Canada than in the U.S. They accepted this technology right away."
In Canada, several accident reconstructionists own the retrieval software
kit and a handful of police agencies also own it, he adds.
"It's definitely catching on and possibly some Canadian insurance adjusters
have purchased this, I believe, so it's definitely a growing product," he
The Vetronix software can also read EDRs from Ford vehicles and the company
is planning to expand the list of manufacturers by year's end.
By the end of 2003, Vetronix will expand vehicle coverage to include
1994-2003 GM vehicles and select 2001-2003 Ford vehicles. The company
anticipates that other vehicle manufacturers will also release this type
information in the near future.
For Davies, the EDR is only a silent witness that has much to offer in the
fight to keep roads and highways safer.
Copyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
"The box just sits there, it's objective," he says. "So if you're thinking
from the perpetrator's point of view, yes, that's a bad thing. If you're
thinking from the victim's point of view, it's a good thing."