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Should all cars get black boxes?

By Claes Bell ·
Monday, May 24, 2010
Posted: 10 am ET

In the wake of the Toyota recall, a broad coalition of automakers announced their support for making "black box" data recorders and brake override systems mandatory on new cars.

What exactly would these safety features do? Black boxes, or event data recorders as they're called in the biz, would record everything that happened to a car, including driver inputs and vehicle speed, in the 60 minutes prior to -- and the 15 seconds after -- a car crash. Brake overrides, on the other hand, would kill the engine when a car's brake pedal and gas pedal were applied at the same time.

The car's "black box"

A car event data recorder, or "black box." Photo courtesy Harris Technical Services.

While this sounds like a pretty good idea, having the benefits of saving lives and determining once and for all whether unintended acceleration was caused by runaway cars or drive error, it does bring up the question of how much is too much when it comes to mandatory safety features.

It may seem like a callous question, but with the most NADA numbers pegging the average cost of a new car ringing in at a not insubstantial $28,350, at what point is the cost-benefit analysis for a new required safety feature not going to pass muster?

Since the National Highway Traffic Safety Administraion, or NHTSA, started collecting data on unintended acceleration three decades ago, they've recorded 110 total deaths related to unintended acceleration, according to a Bloomberg report. That's an average of 3.7 deaths per year. Bees and wasps, on the other hand, are responsible for an average of 53 deaths per year in the U.S., according to "Wilderness and Environmental Medicine," a medical journal.

Now I'm not trying to downplay the tragedy of what occurred, but black boxes and brake override systems aren't free; they're going to be built into the price of every car built in the U.S. if these regulations are adopted.

Black boxes would probably be useful for diagnosing a whole range of fatality-causing automotive defects, but the question has to be asked, at what point do we decide that it might be more cost-effective to just buy beekeeping suits for everyone in the U.S. than to install these safety devices in each of the roughly 16 million cars sold every year?

Just sayin'.

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