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In the wake of the recent Toyota sudden-acceleration accidents and subsequent recalls of Toyota vehicles, safety officials are now weighing the usefulness of so-called in-vehicle “black boxes”. While automakers as well as safety officials agree that black boxes have their limitations, there still may be no better way to figure out whether the driver or the car is to blame in car accidents.

In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is now considering whether to require black boxes in all new vehicles sold in the United States. Overall, the NHTSA estimates that about 40% of cars currently on the road already have black boxes. If you haven’t heard of black boxes before, these devices are essentially “event data recorders” that typically gather information in the event of a car crash. The data, which is usually recorded in the few seconds before a crash and the few seconds after, includes such information as speed, seat belt use, air bag deployment, and brake and gas pedal positions. Having the last pieces of information can help investigators decipher whether the driver or the car was to blame for an accident. For example, if the data shows that a driver had their foot on the brake, but the car still accelerated into a crash, it could help verify that the car was really to blame.

Nevertheless, black boxes are still wrong some of the time. Specifically, if a car is already defective the black box could also be defective since it operates off of the same electronics that caused the problem in the first place. Thus, most crash investigations still mainly utilize information such as skid marks or deformation of the vehicles involved in the crash to make their conclusions.

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