Louisiana Car Wrecks May Be Investigated Using a Car's Black Box

If you’ve ever watched the news after an airplane crash, you know one of the first things the FAA starts looking for is the “black box.” The device’s real name is the “flight data recorder.” In simplest terms, you could think of it as a DVR for anything that the plane does. Although its primary use is accident investigation, black boxes can also be used for analyzing air safety issues such as material degradation and engine performance. I am a pilot, but I’ve never flown an airplane with a black box in it. But I have driven a car with a black box, and it’s likely that you have too!

Recently, the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Timothy Murray, crashed his government-issued Ford Crown Victoria. As car accidents go, Mr. Murray, fared well. He was not seriously hurt, and he told the police he was wearing a seat belt and was not speeding.

Mr. Murray’s car told a different story. Unbeknownst to him, the car contained a black box. The data it captured during the crash showed Mr. Murray was going over 100 miles an hour and not wearing a seat belt. Faced with the data, Mr. Murray admitted that he fell asleep. He was given a $555 fine.

Automotive “black boxes” are now built into more than 90 percent of new cars, and the government is considering making them mandatory. Before you say it’s a good idea, do you ever speed occasionally? If the police can plug in to your car and see you were traveling over every posted speed limit in the country, how would you feel about receiving a speeding ticket for something the black box said you did? Who’s to say you were even in the car? Who’s to say you weren’t on private property? And what about the Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution that provides that, “in all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right…to be confronted with the witnesses against him.” Are you able to cross examine the black box?

There’s not much law on this out there right now, but our lawyers see this area is rife with potential litigation. Do you have an expectation of privacy in the data the black box records? Your expectation of privacy is a legal test which is crucial in determining the privacy protections of the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Long story short, we don’t have all the answers to the questions posed in this blog, but I predict most of them will be answered in the next 5 years. We certainly hope that you don’t get in an automobile accident. But if you do, and one of the cars has a black box in it, things could get interesting.