Auto accident fatalities are heading downward, and EDRs can help move them toward zero.

More than 50 years ago, the director of a Florida police academy told me the entire rationale for police traffic enforcement was supposed to be safety and only safety. Enforcement should be keyed to specific “accident” causes.

Nevertheless, as any motorist can attest, almost universally the object of traffic enforcement at the local level  always has been revenue enhancement, with rare exceptions and sometimes harassment, which takes several forms, including DWB or driving while black.

This practice flies in the face of the responsibilities of the public safety officials charged with reducing crashes and their resulting injuries and deaths.

At the local level, these are the police accident investigators, whether beat cops or specially trained crash experts.

At the national level since 1970, this has been the mission of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which is currently enmeshed in a controversy about its effectiveness arising from its handling of Toyota pedal entrapment and unintended acceleration matters, where as many as 60 fatalities are alleged. (Click Here for: Is NHTSA Underfunded?) FARS and EDRs

Today we have the two tools that could be extremely useful to study road crashes and get to their actual causes. These are the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data collected from states nationwide by NHTSA, and the crash information collected in life-threatening crashes by Electronic Data Recorders (EDRs), or “Black Boxes,” in most vehicles – but not all – on the road today.

In essence, the FARS data tells what might have happened as surmised after the accident. It is the result of the police investigation with information that is gathered on the scene by a harried police officer who simultaneously must get the injured off to a hospital, direct traffic, clear debris and arrange for the wreckage to be towed away, and perhaps even notify the next-of-kin of those killed. Accordingly, the information may not be bulletproof as to details (example: a car identified as a four-door Mustang in one case.) but nonetheless, we salute the dedicated officers involved in this arduous task.

Then there is Black Box data, if the EDR (sometimes also called event data recorder) is properly programmed. An EDR provides information on a variety of vehicle parameters for the few seconds before and after an impact severe enough to trigger deployment of the vehicle’s air bags.

EDRs give solid scientific, objective, factual data about what happened during the crash within the capability of the programming and memory. (Here, recent Congressional testimony strongly suggests Toyota may have been cutting a few corners when compared with best practices in place at other automakers.)

GM led the EDR way

After General Motors had full-scale EDRs mounted in all its new cars and light trucks by Model Year 2000, NHTSA issued a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPR) for EDRs in the summer of 2004, establishing a “voluntary” effective date of September 1, 2008, for the 18 light vehicle manufacturers marketing in the U.S. at the time.

NHTSA asked for comments on:

  1. A minimum set of specified data elements, such as speed, braking, crash forces.
  2. Common technical specifications for that data.
  3. Demonstrated EDR survivability in crash tests.
  4. Vehicle manufacturers recorded data is accessible for crash investigators to retrieve.
  5. Standardized owner manual language concerning the device.

In all, NHTSA identified 18 required data elements, plus standards for another 13 “if equipped” data elements. The recording tape loop, modeled after that in airliners, should extend from eight seconds before the impact to six seconds afterward, to cover up to three consecutive crash events to record possible rollovers or multiple impacts.

For example, the 2000 version of GM’s EDR recorded seat belt use, engine speed, impact speed and direction, change in velocity, braking and throttle operation, and air bag readiness.

Ten years later, Toyota’s EDR still may not record all these elements. In addition, there is only one tool in the U.S. (that is correct: one) which NHTSA can use to download the data. Even then, NHTSA needs the Japanese automaker to tell it what the data say.

GM worked with a California service diagnostics company, Vetronix, to develop software and hardware for convenient downloading of EDR data. By 2004, Ford was also aboard with the Vetronix equipment. Nearly six years ago, the California Highway Patrol already owned eight of these $2500 Vetronix units, while the Michigan State Police had four in service.

Well, that was then and this is now.

For whatever reasons, arguments or protests – presumably, by the affected companies, legislators worried about voter backlash, and product liability attorneys – NHTSA delayed the applicable date for the EDR regulation. This is just one area where safety advocates and critics charge NHTSA with being a “lapdog” of the auto industry. In hindsight, it is a tough charge to refute.

Apparently four years of lead time – 2004 to 2008 – was still not enough, and NHTSA’s website now indicates the applicable date was extended for an additional four years, until September 2012.

It is unknown to whether or how much the specific data standards were watered down from the original proposal, which of course could have been flawed from a practical viewpoint.

From what Toyota has publicly stated either in Congressional testimony or news releases, as of February 2010 it had only ONE device in the U.S. capable of downloading data from EDRs installed in the millions of Toyota and Lexus vehicles on U.S. roads, although it was promising a handful more for NHTSA use. This is a scandal given the deaths and serious injuries incurred by Toyota owners, with 10 million or more vehicles now subject to safety defect recalls globally.

Further, there evidently were two problems with the Toyota offer to provide more EDR downloaders to NHTSA:

  1. Unlike the Vetronix units used for GM and Ford vehicles, which dealership service technicians as well as police investigators could access, only a Toyota technician could handle downloading the EDRs in Toyota and Lexus vehicles – not NHTSA engineers.
  2. It seems that the Toyota EDR was not designed to collect nearly as much vital data as the GM and possibly Ford units. (Ford did not respond to our requests for comment.)

Given that, in combination with the FARS data, output from the EDRs would provide crash investigators the most complete, accurate and objective information of serious crashes, it is hard for me to imagine why Toyota dragged its feet on this vital safety adjunct. The fact that all safety and recall decisions are made in Japan and the U.S. executives are mere figureheads in this important area is a factor.

While we can all rejoice in the significantly reduced number of 2009 highway crash fatalities, there does not seem to be any systematic relation of crash causes to NHTSA regulations. Although the information is available, it just does not seem to be collectively analyzed. (Click Here.)

Are there Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards that do not contribute to real-world safety, and if so should these be dropped? At what speed should crash tests be run for maximum effectiveness? Up to now, it has just been guesswork.

Finally, everyone knowledgeable about highway crashes believes that some proportion of single-vehicle, single-occupant fatalities are really suicides. In addition, how many other crashes are the results of anger or other mental abnormalities, or just plain excessive fatigue?

Except for alcohol or substance abuse, we do not know what factors occurred before the crash, and neither Black Boxes nor FARS can tell us. For answers to those questions, NHTSA and police agencies need forensic investigation of serious crashes, yet to be facilitated.

It is time.

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