Kentucky Case To Use "Black Box" Technology, Growing Number of Cases Nationwide


LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) -- A northern Kentucky manslaughter trial could join a growing number of cases nationwide in which jurors receive information from data recorders pulled from vehicles.

Federal officials estimate the so-called "black boxes" -- similar to those found in aircraft -- are installed in 15 percent of the nation's 200 million passenger vehicles. Like their aerial counterparts, the black boxes in cars and trucks keep precise information about speed and braking just before a crash.

The northern Kentucky case begins in January in Kenton County.

Lloyd Robinson, of Florence, faces a manslaughter charge in the May 2003 death of Kentucky Fish & Wildlife Resources Officer Doug Bryant. Prosecutors say Bryant stopped Robinson along Interstate 75 near Florence, but Robinson sped away after Bryant got out of his truck to approach Robinson's car.

They both crashed, and Bryant, 62, was killed.

Kenton County Commonwealth's Attorney Bill Crockett said black-box data from Robinson's car confirmed witness accounts that he had been traveling 70 to 80 mph at the time of the crash.

The trial had been scheduled for this summer but was delayed after the judge ordered Crockett to subpoena Ford Motor Co. for the data from Bryant's truck and make it available to Robinson's lawyer.

Dean Pisacano, who is representing Robinson, said he is not sure yet whether the technology used in the truck will be useful.

"But the commonwealth had the data from our vehicle, so we wanted to be on a level playing field," he said.

Crockett said experts told him the more limited information available from the Ford box wouldn't be relevant to his case because the data from the truck's older-version recorder is less reliable when the vehicle flips over, as Bryant's did.

Mike Vaughn, a technology spokesman for Ford, said all Fords have had data recorders since 2002, but only a few models have advanced capabilities that have been the focus of critics of the technology.

Some of the boxes can record such information as pre-crash speed, braking, direction of travel and even seat-belt use. Police and lawyers say black boxes have value for investigating crashes and making driving safer.

But American Civil Liberties Union lawyers say motorists don't necessarily know their vehicles have them, and information from the recorders could be used to invade people's privacy.

"I think our position would basically be that consumers should receive clear notices when black boxes are installed, and they should be able to turn them off if they want," said Jay Stanley, a spokesman for the ACLU's Technology and Privacy Project. "And finally, the data should not be accessible to third parties."

State Police are testing the devices and using them, but only in investigations.

"We're not going to be able to pull you over and plug into the computer on your car and find out how fast you were going," Trooper John Giles said.

Some recorders are "asleep" and turn on only during hard braking or when an airbag deploys. Others remain on but constantly overwrite data.

The National Transportation Safety Board recently recommended that the government require recorders in all vehicles, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it would not yet support that. Instead, the NHTSA plans to require by 2008 that all carmakers that install the recorders accept new technology standards.

Dealers are not required to tell buyers about data recorders, but the NHTSA says it likely will require notification soon. Last year, California became the first state to require notices to consumers.

The earliest data recorders were put in some General Motors vehicles in the 1970s to measure airbag performance. Today, all GM models and a growing number of Fords and Chryslers have advanced recorders. Toyota has begun installing advanced recorders in some models, and Honda uses one that records only if an airbag deploys. BMW and Volkswagen do not install them.

Rae Tyson, spokesman for the NHTSA, said the agency has not required black boxes in all vehicles because the industry is moving toward that on its own.

"The recorders provide data that is immensely helpful to us," Tyson said. "But there are issues relating to (the boxes) that frankly go far beyond the pure research questions. These questions -- whether they involve the ownership of the data collected or other privacy issues -- all need to be dealt with in other forums."

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