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Imagine driving, almost flying down the road, at 300-plus mph, and ending up in a fireball. That’s what happened to 14-time Funny Car champion, John Force last month that kept the audience holding its breath until they discovered he was o.k. Well, o.k. is a relative term; he had a broken ankle, foot and hand, plus a damaged knee and wrist, but basically, he was going to live. The crash happened in a split second so how could anyone know what really went wrong? It’s not like cars have devices like airplane’s black boxes, right? Well, yes they do, some cars do in fact have black box-like devices that help investigators.

In this case, Force’s black box is called a Delphi Accident data Recorder 3 or “Delphi box”. His crew chief and accident investigators are presently analyzing the results to find out what happened and to try and make sure it doesn’t happen again. The data box sits under the driver’s seat and measures functionality of the major auto systems and records the data.

Not all of the cars on the road today have these black box-like devices, but now more and more are being built into the automobiles. They are specifically known as Event Data Recorders (EDR’S) and have been around since 1994. Now over 60% of the new cars sold have these as a standard feature. In fact, all cars and trucks built in the last 13 years by General Motors have them installed. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has ruled that by the year 2010, all cars should have this as standard equipment. However, this is a voluntary requirement.

With close to 43,000 motor vehicle accidents fatalities per year, you’d think having a crash data box would be a good thing, right? Well, people do have some privacy concerns. Whenever there is a new technology, the potential for misuse is always there. In a handful of states now, there is legislation to in fact require auto dealers to notify new buyers that this unit is installed in the car. In addition, the owner of the vehicle does own the information, but in case of an accident, insurance companies, law enforcement and court officials can get access to the data through a court order.

So just what type of data are the boxes recording? No, they don’t record where you are driving, but in fact, track your vehicle speed, engine RPM’s, seat belt usage, airbag deployment and whether the brakes were applied. Basically, data that might assist law enforcement to reconstruct a traffic accident.

One example where having an event data recorder was extremely vital in convicting a drunk driver who killed two children in Austin, Texas. The prosecutor had eye-witness accounts that the defendant was drunk and was driving at an “unreasonable rate of speed”, but it wasn’t until they examined the data recorder did they find that he was traveling at over 85 miles per hour and he did not hit the brakes until a second before the crash. This totally vindicated the victims and invalidated the defendant’s side of the story. The end result was that he was convicted of murder for killing the two children and was sentenced for 50 years.

Currently the University of Michigan Medical School and GM are researching links between certain type of crashes and injuries. In the future, they hope to create a database that would assist ER doctors on the types of injuries that are typical for certain types of crashes. In this way, emergency response teams would be prepared before they went out to assist crash victims. When every second counts in an accident, this would be an important step for saving lives.

Lastly, just a quick update on John Force. He was released from a Texas hospital and will be returning home to Yorba Linda. We wish him well!

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