A Silent Witness Hiding in Your Car


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 the 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 catastrophe.

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. It 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.

MILLIONS INSTALLED

Law enforcement's interest in the devices and the data they record has grown primarily because so many Canadians have some type of EDR installed in their 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 installed 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 in your car.

The EDR tells an investigator how fast the vehicle was travelling before the 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 a 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 a 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 a 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 performed during a crash out in the field was also the way that you had designed it to do.

"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 the situation is, it will shed light where no light could be shed," says Davies.

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 able 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 some critics concerned.

"I don't want to hear anybody say that this is some kind of a safety device, says Ottawa lawyer Lawrence Greenspon. "Because if it was a safety device, 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 lawsuits

LAWSUITS DROPPED

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 case in court where the EDR has been used, but he believes the devices will become more regulated by authorities and more popular in police investigations.

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 even 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 from that to being in all cars and for the police to be able to access them whenever they want."

MISGIVINGS

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 a bad thing, I mean, if it's evidence of what happened, that's good," she says

"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 US.

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 elderly man dead in The man died instantly when his rented late-model GM vehicle was 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 Desjourdy.

"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 investigative 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 says.

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 of 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.

"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."

Associated PressCopyright 2014 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Recommended Investigations

Join the discussion