Raymon Holmberg didn't know his new sedan came equipped with the long arm of the law. The dealer hadn't bothered to mention the "black box," a computer chip that stores information on speed and seat belt use.
"When I bought my car," he said, "I didn't realize I was also buying a highway patrolman to sit in the back seat."
Holmberg, a state senator, believes his privacy was violated and is taking aim at black boxes. Lawmakers in 10 other states are also hoping to regulate black boxes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The bill Holmberg is sponsoring — now up for Senate consideration after being approved Wednesday by the House — would require buyers to be told if their new car or truck is equipped with a black box. It would also prohibit the data from being used in court unless there is a court order. Subscription services such as OnStar, which can be used to track a vehicle's movements, would be exempt.
Its most vocal critics are auto manufacturers. For General Motors, said lobbyist Thomas Kelsch, it makes no sense to bar information from the computer chip from being used in court.
"What's the societal good that would result from the suppression of valuable crash data?" Kelsch asked.
But Holmberg, a Grand Forks Republican, again raises the privacy issue. He worries the data could be used to track driving habits or be used against a driver who has an accident.
"Most people don't realize these devices are in their vehicle, that the information recorded may be used against them and there's no sort of regulation about who owns that information," he said.
North Dakota is one of 11 states considering black-box regulation this year, said Pam Greenberg, who tracks privacy issues for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
California has a law on the books requiring dealers and vehicle rental companies to inform drivers when a car has a black box. In New York, it is illegal for rental companies to use global positioning system technology to track drivers and use the data to charge extra fees or penalties.
Accident investigators argue that the privacy concerns are overblown.
"These guys are trying to roll back North Dakota courts to the Dark Ages," said Jim Harris, owner of Harris Technical Services, a Florida-based accident investigation company. "What are you going to do? Leave out videotapes?"
According to the National Highway Transportation Administration, about 15 percent of vehicles — or about 30 million cars and trucks — have black boxes. About 65 percent to 90 percent of 2004 cars and trucks have them, according to the NHTA.
Rusty Haight, director of the Collision Safety Institute, which researches crashes and trains accident investigators, said black boxes were introduced in cars along with air bags in the 1970s.
Air bag sensors already collected the information and it was a small step to allow researchers to see how well other systems were performing, Haight said.
North Dakota Highway Patrol Capt. Mark Bethke said crash investigators must have a warrant to access information from a recorder. He said the patrol collects such information less than once a month and has never used it in court.
John Buchanan, a Miami accident reconstruction expert, said investigators must compare what the recorder says to the physical evidence at an accident scene.
"I'm a big believer in the box," he said. "But you cannot just take a box, read what it says and say that's what happened."
Insurance companies already have limited access to some data.
State Farm requires its customers to help with investigations, including allowing insurance employees to look at their vehicles, said Dick Luedke, a spokesman for the Illinois-based insurer.
Progressive Insurance began a voluntary program last year in which the company gives drivers a chip similar to a black box that can be used to transmit data, said spokeswoman Shannon Radigan.
Progressive offers drivers the possibility of a break on their insurance rates based on when, how much and how fast they drive, she said. The average discount is between 12 percent and 15 percent, she said.
North Dakota auto dealers say they have not heard many complaints about black boxes. Sales people say customers rarely ask about them. And police say the devices are not common.
"They're just not very prevalent," said Fargo Sgt. Joel Vettel.
By James Warden
for more features.