Car Black Boxes: Do They Make or Break Your Accident Claims?

by | Mar 15, 2024 | Car Accidents, Auto Parts

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Ever had a car accident and wished there was a witness to support your side? Do you know, there’s a little box in your car that does just that? It’s called a black box, and it remembers everything from how fast you were going to whether you hit the brakes in time. This hidden device can come to your aid to prove you were not at fault. However, be careful, it can also spill the beans if you didn’t! Want to know how these car black boxes can make or break your auto accident claims?  Travel with us to find out how!

What is a car black box?

A car black box is small device used to record data in cars. It is known as an event Data Recorder (EDR) that captures a crash data seconds before, during and immediately after a crash. It mainly captures data such as the vehicle’s speed, position of throttle, brake and seatbelt usage, deployment of airbags and other crash-related information.

The car black box data can turn out to be vital in accident-related legal and insurance claims. It gives crucial insights to people on how the accident occurred and the factors contributed to the crash.

Most of the cars made after 2014 come with a black box installed. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that more than 99% of new cars have an event data recorder installed in them.

Car brands, like Buick, Cadillac and Chevy came with car black boxes since mid-1990. After 2014, manufacturers of Chrysler, Ford, GM, Honda, Nissan and Toyota made their vehicles with car black boxes.

Is it mandatory to have a black box in your car? It is not yet made mandatory, though the NHTSA had been trying to make it mandatory since 2004.

In 2012, the NHTSA made a proposal to make black box mandatory in all vehicles. However, it withdrew the proposal in 2019, as most of the automobile manufacturers started equipping their vehicles with black boxes.

Difference between Black Boxes Used in Aviation and Cars

In the beginning, black boxes were used only in aviation to find out the reasons for a flight crash. The aviation black boxes have two parts- a flight data recorder (FDR) and a cockpit voice recorder (CVR). They record data pertaining to the time, speed, altitude, direction, pilot instructions and other vital audio recorded in the cockpit. It can record data of minimum two hours.

A car black box is actually placed somewhere inside the dashboard behind the steering wheel. These diagnostic sensing modules sense the impending crash, if any safety devices like the airbags to be deployed and then collect the data prior, during and after the crash. Unlike the aviation black boxes, the car black boxes store only 20 seconds of data on the velocity, force of impact, and usage of safety equipment like seatbelts without any audio.

Is a black box, black in color? Not actually. The aviation black boxes are painted in corrosion-free fluorescent orange color to make it easily visible after a flight crash. However, the car black boxes are made in black as well as silver colors. It is not mandated to make car black boxes in any particular color.

All EDRs are not alike. Some EDRs start recording data only when a sudden change in velocity occurs and continue to record until the event is over. Certain types of EDRs continue to record data until the time expires. Many other car black boxes or EDRs continuously record events by overwriting on the previously recorded data every few minutes. They stop overwriting until an impact occurs.

Types of Data Car Black Boxes Record

The type of data recorded in the car black box differs depending on the make and model of the car. Generally, a black box in the car documents the following data.

  • Change in the vehicle’s speed and velocity
  • Maximum velocity of the vehicle
  • Duration required for the velocity to change
  • Speed of the car at the moment of crash
  • Position of engine throttle at the time of crash
  • Application of accelerator and brake
  • Number of vehicle Ignitions
  • Angle of steering wheel
  • Angle of vehicle rollover
  • If a driver or passenger had seatbelt on
  • Speed of the driver and passenger airbag during deployment
  • Any attempts to avoid collision
  • Status of front airbag warning light
  • Number of impacts and interval between impacts
  • Phone usage

Though the EDR can record all these data, it cannot record who was driving the car. If a dashcam is attached to the car, it might prove the identity of the driver. The investigators would prove that using other evidence.

Will black box data make or break your auto accident claims?

Black box data is acknowledged as a valid admissible proof in auto accident litigations. Juries may issue subpoenas to access the black box data in complicated car crash claims.

Mainly the black box data is retrieved in three types of scenarios: 1) in fatal accidents, to prove what caused the accident 2) when the people involved in the accident could not remember the cause of the impact 3) to establish liability when contradictory witness testimonies make the claims complex.

In auto accident claims, accident reconstructionists, insurance providers and legal investigators (police) make use of the black box data to determine how the accident occurred, who is at fault, and if the driver attempted to avoid the crash.

In car accident claims, a black box data can come to your help, when there‘s no other evidence to prove that you followed the rules of the road and the other driver was at fault.

When the police, biomechanical and accident reconstruction experts access the black box data to identify the speed of the car, force of the impact and usage of seat belt, deployment of airbags and other vital data to determine who was at fault.

The black box data of any one of the cars involved in the collision is enough to prove whose version of story is correct. For example, the defendant might claim that he was not at fault or the impact was a minor one, which was not forceful enough to cause the injuries of the plaintiff. The black box data of the defendant’s car might not be accessible. However, the data collected from the plaintiff’s vehicle is enough to prove the truth.

Even if it is a multi-vehicle collision, the black box data can pinpoint each impact with its force during the collision. Since the data includes the details like use of seatbelt, angle of steering, vehicle speed and change in velocity and driver’s attempt to avoid collision, it would be easy for the investigators to decide on the real cause of the accident.

After collecting the data, the experts or analysts go through the information and identify if the data correlates with the other documents, eye witness statements, versions of accident details given by the plaintiff, defendant and their experts.

Any contradictions in the black box data with the statements can make or break the accident claims. If the plaintiffs are not at fault, it can assist them in proving the negligence of the at-fault driver and help the victim get reasonable recompense.

If the plaintiff’s negligence also has contributed to the accident, the black box data can reveal that. It can sometimes make the claims invalid or lead to lesser compensations. For example, if the plaintiff failed to wear seatbelt, drove over the zone’s speed limit or made no attempts to avoid the accident, it could affect the claim ending up in less or no reparation.

Can my insurance company undervalue my claim using black box data?

Definitely, there are chances for your insurance claim to be undervalued by the providers. They can retrieve your black box data to prove that you were using phone at the time of crash, speeding or not wearing the seatbelt as the black box can indicate on all these. Even if you hadn’t used your phone while driving but was plugged into the car’s blue tooth, providers might claim that you were using the phone.

If you were not at fault, you can prove your claim by providing your phone data. However, it would be better you contact an experienced lawyer to prove your stance.

How accurate are black boxes in cars?

EDR data can play a significant role in proving claims, where liability is in dispute. However, it cannot always be used as it can sometimes give inaccurate data on deployment of airbag, vehicle’s speed, phone usage or seatbelt use.

In some cases, the black box might be burned completely during the crash or be left ‘off’ always or not maintained properly by the people responsible. In the following situations, the EDR data cannot be admissible as evidence.

  • Black box is not in working condition or faulty and inaccurate at the time of incident
  • Data contradicts with the expert testimony, damage of the vehicles, accident scene particulars and the injuries sustained by the occupant
  • Testimony on the maintenance of the vehicle or vehicle calibration

For example, each time the vehicle gets a new tire of different dimension than the original, the wheel speed would be different. Only if it is calibrated, a black box can give accurate vehicle speed.

How to access car black box data?

Don’t think that any Tom, Dick and Harry can access their black box data and manipulate that. A crash data retrieval system is necessary to retrieve the black box data. The retrieval system costs up to $20,000. Bosch has developed a crash data retrieval system, which is used by many people. Some of the manufacturers have their own software to retrieve the data.

To collect the data, the retriever should connect the retrieval system to the onboard Diagnostic Link Connector (DLC) under the dashboard of the car. In some cases, the black box can be removed to connect it to the external device and download the data.

The crash data in recorded in the form of hexadecimal data or codes. The retrieval system decodes that and gives the data. In some cases, only the manufacturers can retrieve the data using their retrieval systems.

The Bosch CDR tool is one of the widely used decoder or data retrieval system.

Black box data of a person cannot be retrieved that easily. For example, if you want to get the car black box data of the defendant, either you should have the consent of the defendant or get the court order for retrieval. Due to the privacy laws and federal regulations, it’s not easy to get the black box data. To prove liability in claims, attorneys or the insurance providers may call for black box data retrieval.

The NHTSA and legal enforcement can access the black box data for legal or analytical purposes. Even if the police needs to download the black box data, they have to get a court order to do so. The NHTSA wanted manufacturers to collect the black box data periodically to analyze the crash details.

How long does a car black box store data?

Depending on the make and model of the car, the duration a black box preserves the data differs. Most of the car black boxes store the data for thirty days once it is recorded. Some preserve it for a longer duration. Approximately after 250 ignition cycles, the crash data recorded in the EDR would be rewritten with fresh data. It is better to access the EDR data as quickly as possible, if you want it for any purposes.

If the car is repaired or destroyed completely after the crash, there are chances for the data to be lost.

Most of the vehicles have the EDRs connected to the airbag module. After an accident, when the airbags are replaced, new EDRs are connected. In some cases, the repair shops may format the same EDRs and fix them back to reuse them. In such scenarios, the recorded data might get lost.

The NHTSA Ruling on Black Box

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was working to standardize the use of car black boxes. In August 2006, it published a 207-page ruling, 49 CFR Part 563. It mandated that vehicles with the black boxes should record a minimum of 15 crash-related data.

As per the code 49 CFR § 563.11, the car owner’s manual should have the following data, if the car has a black box installed in.


Read more about Rule 49 CFR § 563 here.

What does the state black box law convey?

Not all the states have set standards on black box data handling or passed any legislature on the same. Very few states have black box laws.

The Washington black box privacy law – Recording Devices in Motor Vehicles Law– was passed in 2009. According to it- 1) the details of black boxes should be included in the owner’s manual for all the new vehicles sold in the state, 2) the black box data can be downloaded with owner’s consent, court order or for the NHTSA vehicle safety research, and 3) possessing black box data without owner’s consent or using for purposes other than what the state permit for is considered a misdemeanor.

The Florida state court insists that a court warrant is required to get the black box data even in criminal cases as it contained private data, whereas the Georgia court allows accessing black box data without a warrant.

Real Life Events Where Black Box Data Upturned the Legal Battles

Tiger Wood

The famous golfer, Tiger Woods met with an accident in Los Angeles on February 23, 2021. While on a downhill road, his SUV crossed lanes, crashed into a tree and then rolled over to the side injuring him badly. The SUV’s black box data was retrieved to identify the cause of the single-car crash.

The black box data revealed that his SUV was speeding at 82 mph on a driving zone with 45 mph speed limit. He was found to be wearing his seatbelt. Instead of hitting brake, he accelerated throughout the accident.

Sergeant Michael Downing stated that if Woods had traveled within the speed limits his car would not have crashed into the center median and rolled over. He could have been able to control his car.

Timothy Murray

As per the CBS news, the Lt. Governor of Massachusetts crashed the government vehicle in 2011. He denied speeding and claimed wearing seatbelt. However, the car’s black box data proved that he was rushing more than the speed limit and was not wearing his seatbelt.

To wrap up,

The role of car black boxes in accident claims is evolutionary, offering benefits to drivers and insurance companies alike. These tiny devices hidden in the vehicles, serve as a silent witnesses to the crash events, providing invaluable evidence that can prove the circumstances of an accident. From determining fault and assessing the severity of an impact to promoting safer driving habits, car black boxes have steered in a new era of transparency and accountability in legal and insurance sectors.

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Medlegal 360

MedLegal360 is a specialized author in medical-legal matters, providing clear, authoritative insights on healthcare legislation and personal injury litigation for professionals and the curious.

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