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Can a Car's 'Black Box' Data Be Used in Court?

By Jenny Tsay, Esq. | Last updated on

While "black boxes" are most commonly associated with airplanes, you might be surprised to know that most recent car models have a "black box" installed as an event data recorder.

This "black box" is typically used by car companies to assess the performance of their vehicles, but the data that's collected on the boxes may also assist police and insurance companies investigate crashes.

So can "black box" data be used in a car accident lawsuit?

What Data Do 'Black Boxes' in Cars Collect?

The Event Data Recorder, or "black box," can help carmakers collect data about the reliability of their cars. "Black boxes" can usually only record a few seconds of information when a car accident occurs or an air bag deploys. After that, another device is used to extract the data and then it's analyzed through computer software.

Depending on the car model and manufacturer, the information recorded on the "black box" will vary. For example, a 2001 Chevrolet Monte Carlo with a recording device installed was able to collect some pertinent information following a fatal DUI crash, including:

  • How fast the car was traveling at the time of the crash;
  • Whether the driver or passengers in the car were wearing their seatbelts; and
  • Whether the driver applied his or her brakes.

While this information can be extremely useful in court, the 'black box' data may not be accessible to everyone. Depending on your state's privacy laws, you may need a court order or the owner's consent in order to find out what was on the recording.

State Laws

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 states have enacted legislation relating to event data recorders. These statutes cover how a car manufacturer will alert owners to the presence of a "black box," how a person can access the data, and other legal issues.

For example, in California, the presence of an event data recorder will be noted in car owner's manuals and in agreements with subscription services, like Zipcar. The data can only be obtained if the owner consents, if there's a court order, or when the information is used for vehicle safety research or for repairing the car.

On the other hand, Oregon doesn't require disclosure of the "black box," but getting permission to access the data can't be a condition of payment or settlement of an insurance claim, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

So read up on your state's laws to see how and if you can use "black box" data in court.

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