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Black boxes in cars must be priority

Most Pennsylvania motorists, at least the owners or leasers of many newer models, probably are unaware that their personal vehicles might be equipped with a data-collection “black box.”

Most people generally think of such devices only regarding large commercial aircraft. Whenever there’s a plane crash or other major incident involving an airliner, investigators make locating or accessing the plane’s “black boxes” — actually the bright-orange-in-color flight data recorder and cockpit voice recorder — the first priority as they begin their probe.

Like not knowing about the possibility that a data-collection device might be riding along with them, most motorists probably don’t know — or have forgotten — that the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in February rescinded an Obama-era proposal to mandate black boxes in all new vehicles.

That decision eight months ago can be judged as extremely questionable, considering the value of such devices in ascertaining an accident’s cause as well as details about the time immediately preceding it.

The data device in a car captures such information as the speed of the vehicle during the time preceding the crash, whether a seat belt was being worn, seat track position and whether an airbag or airbags deployed as the result of an impact.

Despite the NHTSA decision earlier this year, the agency reportedly still maintains a list of required data that such devices must capture if an automaker has voluntarily installed them.

As for knowledge about the data recorders’ existence in most newer-model vehicles, that fact is not emphasized enough — or often not at all — during the purchase process. There are so many other more popular features to talk up.

However, those event-data recorders should be given more attention. People who obey traffic laws and otherwise drive safely and defensively should feel an added sense of confidence and trust, knowing that there is a source of reliable information available, should they experience the misfortune of being involved in a serious crash, especially one for which they were not responsible.

News regarding vehicle black boxes is gaining traction in Pennsylvania, and it is emanating from Philadelphia, where a grant from the Philadelphia Police Foundation will soon allow that city’s crash investigators to access data from inside vehicles’ event-data recorders.

In a report last week, Philadelphia’s WHYY News said the city’s effort to gain black box data comes after years of advocacy from people like the co-founder of the group Families for Safer Streets Greater Philadelphia, who lost her daughter as the result of a crash in 2017. At the time of that tragic accident, the woman expressed shock and anger that the city’s police department had to rely on another agency to investigate that crash and other serious crashes.

And, as WHYY reported, Philadelphia has a big fatal-traffic-accident problem. Last year there were 91 traffic fatalities, producing a traffic death rate more than double that of New York City’s.

Information garnered from vehicle black boxes can be important for eliminating claims in court that speed estimates or other data produced manually by accident investigators might be incorrect or invalid.

Philadelphia stands to gain from the police foundation grant in the way many other places across the country have benefited from the same capability.

Meanwhile, while the Trump administration has opted to do away with numerous other Obama-era proposals and mandates, some rightly and some not-so-correctly, the administration should have discouraged February’s NHTSA action.

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