Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Black Boxes in Cars

There's a lot of strange paradoxes and contradictions in the way road safety is managed by our rulers.

The technology for black boxes that record exactly how a vehicle was being driven at the time of a crash has been around for some years now. That technology is cheap. Most of the major systems in modern cars are essentially computer-managed, so all a black box needs to do is record information that is already available from sensors that are in the car. The black box could also be equipped with video recording - video cameras are also very cheap. The exact GPS co-ordinates of the vehicle could be recorded given that many vehicles come with sat-nav built-in.

If every car were so equipped, there would be no need for the police to spend endless, expensive hours investigating the cause of crashes. A simple printout from the cars involved would tell them most of what they need to know. Similarly, insurance companies would not have to spend nearly as much time trying to figure out who's telling porkies on their insurance claim - like this guy. Innocent motorists wouldn't need to worry about an accident in which they are blameless going 'knock-for-knock' and costing them their no-claims bonus. And crucially, it would mean that dangerous drivers could no longer get away, literally, with murder, in the absence of human witnesses to their actions. This deterrent might save quite a few lives and serious injuries, with their attendant costs to the NHS, disability benefit, and so on.

There are more benefits. Rather than relying on the lottery of speeding tickets and other endorsements to assess whether someone is a good driver, insurance companies could get a much more accurate picture of the 'where, when and how fast' of each person's driving. I didn't just make this up, some of it is already happening with pay-as-you-drive policies.

You would think that with these obvious upsides, it would be a no-brainer to build black boxes into all new cars. But apparently not. We're prepared to have our personal freedoms and rights eroded in the name of counter-terrorism - terrorism being the cause of a relatively tiny number of deaths compared to road crashes - but the idea of recording what someone does with a potentially lethal piece of machinery seems to be a step too far. Even though road death is the leading killer of young people.

That is, until now. The NY Times reports the Toyota safety recall has caused the case for black boxes to be considered in the US.

So here's the paradox. Whether any crashes have been caused by the widely-reported Toyota faults is still unproven, but  in general catastrophic failures of safety-critical systems in vehicles are quite rare, and crashes caused by such failures rarer still.  The overwhelming majority of crashes are caused by 'user error' - inattentive drivers going too fast for conditions. Because the 'users' of cars are you and me and the bloke next door, we're in denial about the problem. But when it's a faceless corporation that's in the frame, we have no problem scapegoating them.

No comments:

Post a Comment