Do Cars Have Black Boxes? 

Posted: May 12, 2023

You probably know about flight recorders, or “black boxes,” and how they record voices, sounds, and other inflight data that plane-crash investigators can use to parse for clues as to what went wrong after a plane goes down. 


What you might not know about black boxes is that, according to the website Simple Flying, they:   

  • aren’t usually black but, rather, are orange or some other color; 
  • have been in widespread use on commercial airliners since World War II; and  
  • must record at least two hours of audio, per the Federal Aviation Administration. Many New York motorists may not know that there’s likelya similar device in their car. 

Do Vehicles Have a Black Box? 

Long the best friend of federal investigators trying to unravel what happened in the moments before a plane went down, a similar Event Data Recorder, or “EDR,” is now a go-to source of information for those trying to make sense of traffic accidents. 


Unless a vehicle is very old, it’s likely equipped with a black box. Almost every vehicle made in 2021 has an EDR. 


Though an EDR uses sensors throughout the car, the main unit usually is under the driver’s seat or inside the center console.  


Unlike the black boxes on airplanes, however, vehicle EDRs don’t generally capture data unless something happens — an event of some kind — to start the recording. Though slamming into a huge pothole could potentially trigger a car’s EDR if the impact is severe enough, data capture usually happens only when there’s a collision sufficient to cause evident damage to the car and trigger airbag deployment. 

What Information Does the Black Box Record?  

A car’s EDR records technical and human-input information for a few seconds before, during, and after a crash, according to a Q&A resource released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 


Black-box data may include information about  

  • speed; 
  • braking 
  • steering; 
  • throttle position; 
  • force of impact; 
  • airbag-deployment; and 
  • seat belt usage. 

Federal requirements for “collection, storage, and retrievability of onboard motor vehicle crash event data” ensure accident records of a quality that would enable crash investigators and researchers to retrieve data.  

When Did They Start Putting Black Boxes in Cars? 

The idea of recording car-crash information dates to the early 1970s.  


Here’s a rough timeline.  

  • 1970s: After the National Transportation Safety Board recommends automakers and the NHTSA work together to gather information on crashes using on-board collision-sensing and -recording devices, General Motors creates technology to record data concerning airbag deployment in certain models.  
  • 1999: GM vehicles gain the capability to record data concerning operations before the crash. 
  • 2006: The NHTSA, in Part 563 of the Code of Federal Regulations, sets requirements for data elements, data capture and format, data retrieval, and data crash survivability for EDRs, such requirements becoming fully effective in 2012.  
  • 2013: By some reports, 96 percent of new cars sold in the U.S. areequipped with a black box 
  • September 2023: An NHTSA-proposed rule is proposed to take effect, requiring automakers to extend the required recording time of black boxes from five seconds of pre-crash data to 20 seconds. 

How Much Data Do Crash Reconstructionists Need? 

Researchers at Virginia Tech conducted an EDR-duration study to determine how long EDRs must capture data to provide useful information. 


The five seconds of recording now required was insufficient to help investigators with crash reconstruction. But how many seconds would be needed?  


Twenty seconds of pre-crash data, — the length prescribed by the NHTSA’s proposal, would capture most of what’s needed, researchers concluded. According to a study “a minimum of 20 seconds of pre-crash data recording is necessary to investigate crash causation, as this period captures the driver pre-crash actions in 90% of the dataset.”  

Can I Get My Vehicle’s Black Box Data After an Accident? 

All this may come as news.  


It may even come as news that cars have black boxes.. For many Americans, the term “black box” still conjures images of planes, not cars. Cockpit voice recorders have been mandatory on commercial flights since 1965, after all, beginning in the United States. 


The idea of black boxes in cars is new enough to have raised privacy concerns,  but the information they capture is generally limited to serious crashes and includes no personal data, such as name, gender, age, or crash location.  


What black boxes do record can be obtained during a crash investigation. After a serious crash, it is generally a good idea to preserve the vehicle so that its black box can be analyzed. The same goes for the other driver’s car. It is critical to make clear your intention to analyze its EDR before the vehicle is disposed of, or such data is otherwise spoiled or “spoliated.” .  


You can check your car’s owner’s manual for more information about itsblack box. Federal regulations require an EDR statement to be printed in each owner’s manual. If you’re buying a car from a dealership, that dealership may be able to let you know whether the vehicle has a black box. 

Call William Mattar. We Focus on Car Accidents. 

The personal-injury attorneys at William Mattar, P.C. have helped crash victims throughout New York. There are strict legal deadlines for filing a car accident claim and preserving important evidence—like black box data—so talk to us as soon as possible. Dial 844-444-4444 or complete our online form requesting a free initial consultation. We’ll talk with you about your claim and work with you to get maximum compensation . 

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