The Star Witness In Your Criminal Trial? It Could Be Your Car


We’ve all had those moments: we’re convinced that we got a ticket unfairly, or that the car insurance company thought we were at fault when we weren’t. Fortunately, and unfortunately, you’re soon going to have somebody testifying at your trial you may have never expected: your car.

There’s a lot of technology in your car that can confirm your version of events … or prove you’re in the wrong. For example, 85% of cars on the road have Event Data Recorders, also known as EDRs, as part of their airbag system. EDRs aren’t required in most cars by law, although that will change in 2013, when they’ll be required in new cars.

EDRs were originally intended to provide the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration with more accurate crash data, and it might surprise you what they record. EDRs track the obvious — like braking and speeding up — but also track seat belt use and whether or not your airbag warning lamp is on.

Before you get too upset about it, let’s deflate one urban myth: EDRs don’t record everything you’re saying and doing in your car. In fact, most of them have very short memories and just continuously write over themselves until the airbag deploys or it senses other signs of a crash.

Your car has 15 crash vectors that are stored in the minutes before a crash; they can provide crucial information in accident reconstruction. Will this help you or hurt you? It could cut both ways: for example, EDR data disproved Toyota’s claims that bad drivers, not flawed construction, caused the sudden unexpected acceleration problems their cars experienced. But, in other cases, drivers’ errors have been exposed by the car’s “memory.”

And it’s not just about speeding tickets, either. For example, New Jersey courts recently ruled that using GPS data, from a tracking device placed in a mutually owned vehicle or from a co-owned device, was not illegal in civil cases. In other words, cheating spouses may discover the hard way that their spurned husband or wife knows exactly where they’ve been, just by quizzing their OnStar or looking through the gizmo on your dashboard. As far as criminal law goes, as of right now, the police can put a GPS tracker on your car without your knowledge … or a warrant. If that sounds a bit controversial, the Supreme Court is hearing arguments about the Constitutionality of this as of this writing.

And, needless to say, none of this even begins to touch on the information that might be retrieved from wireless systems, like the Sync found in Fords, or devices like the Progressive Snapshot: similar to an EDR, but voluntarily installed by drivers to lower their car insurance.

So what does this mean for the typical, upstanding citizen? First of all, remember that, except for the EDR, this is all information you don’t have to give away: if you don’t want to be tracked with your GPS, simply leave it off or don’t buy it as an aftermarket option for your car. The EDR, meanwhile, is federally mandated, but it’s also designed not to violate your privacy, but rather track crash data. Also remember that most people will never have the EDR accessed: in cases like door dings and fender-benders, it’s unlikely to stop recording information.

In short, the technology has some privacy trade-offs to go with its convenience … and whether or not that’s worth it is up to you.

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