Lawmakers are paying a lot of attention to some little-known technology that collects data during car crashes.
Arkansas, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas this year followed California 's lead in limiting who can use information from Event Data Recorders (EDRs)—devices built into vehicles that can record a car's speed and the response of seat belts, brakes and air bags in an accident.
The state laws are meant to preserve a driver's privacy by requiring a court order or the car owner's permission before insurers or law enforcement can download the data. Eleven other states considered bills in 2005 limiting access to such crash data, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
EDRs have been installed on approximately 15 percent of all cars on the road and up to 90 percent of the 2004 models, said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. About the size of a compact disc jewel case, the device is attached to a car's airbag system and records up to 30 seconds of information, which is continually overwritten. An accident triggers the device to save the information, which otherwise is not stored after the car is turned off, Shosteck said.
There is no federal law governing who has access to information from EDRs and how it can be used, according to the American Automobile Association. In one high-profile case, South Dakota state police in 2003 gleaned EDR information from the car of former governor and U.S. Rep. Bill Janklow (R) after he ran a stop sign and hit a motorcyclist, who later died from his injuries.
Several organizations, including the National Transportation Safety Board, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the American College of Emergency Physicians have issued statements supporting the use of EDRs to collect research data. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is considering requiring them in all new vehicles.
Lawmakers across the country are growing more concerned that EDR information will be misused by law enforcement or insurance companies.
"Like 95 percent of the citizenry, I didn't know these devices were in automobiles," said Arkansas state Sen. Jim Jeffress (D), a chief sponsor of the law in his state that specifies that data from EDRs belong solely to the car owner.
"What I could foresee is some poor old guy working paycheck-to-paycheck has an [automobile] accident ... and an overzealous prosecutor uses [EDR] data against him in court," he said.
Under Jeffress' measure, police would need a court order to use the EDR information for an investigation, he said. Insurance companies also cannot require access to the EDR data as a condition of granting a policy or of paying a claim, Jeffress explained. But data could be downloaded from the devices for research if the identity of the owner is not disclosed.
The Arkansas law also requires that car dealers tell buyers about the devices—information that is now disclosed only in the owner's manuals that few people read thoroughly, he said.
North Dakota Rep. Duane DeKrey (R), who pushed for a similar law in his state, said he was worried that insurance companies would use the EDR data to unfairly raise a customer's premiums. "It should be made clear who owns the information," he said.
The new Nevada law is similar to Arkansas', but a provision requiring dealers to inform buyers was stripped from it, said Assemblywoman Peggy Pierce (D), who co-sponsored the legislation.
The measures have the support of the American Automobile Association because they protect individual drivers' information, said spokesman Mantill Williams. "Our position is, when you buy the car, all the data belongs to you," he said.