Word on the street is that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration(NHTSA) is considering making black boxes mandatory in all highway-capable vehicles. Until the details are settled, it is hard to tell if the benefits will outweigh the costs.

Black boxes (formally Event Data Recorders) are best known for their use in determining what happened just before an airplane accident. The NHTSA hopes to bring that same function to vehicles to glean information about highway collisions. The concept is not new as General Motors vehicles have included black boxes since the 1990s. Data regarding speed and driver actions are all recorded for possible review.

The concept of black boxes in vehicles comes with both benefits and justifiable concerns. For example, automakers could use information from black boxes to determine whether a manufacturing or design defect contributed to a motor vehicle accident. This would make vehicle recalls quicker, cheaper and more specific. Black boxes could also help determine who was at fault in a car accident, simplifying (if not eliminating) needless litigation.

On the other hand, many people are concerned that the use of black boxes will invade their privacy. Just as data could be used to show a car accident was a vehicle’s fault, it could be used to show driver error. Moreover, insurance companies could require prior driving data before insuring a driver, and could require updated data to determine insurance rates. Unfortunately, many details about the data and access have yet to be hammered out.

As with most technological advances there are pros and cons to each new idea and product. Only time will tell if black boxes will be valuable tools for improving highway safety or simply a new way to track and record our every move.

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