George Orwell’s classic science fiction novel 1984 has in many ways come to seem prophetic. The recent controversy stirred up about the NSA’s tracking of cellphone usage has spurred comparisons to Orwell’s Big Brother, the entity controlling the populace by constantly reminding them that “Big Brother is watching you.”
No matter which side of the political issue you come down on with regard to the NSA, you’ll probably be glad to know that certain functions of your car are being continuously monitored. That’s right – Big Brother is riding with you.
A young woman in Anne Arundel County recently benefited from the information gathered by her Chevy’s air bag control module. Last year she pulled onto the highway from a shopping center, into the path of a motorcycle, killing the cyclist. A witness said he saw the woman texting and that she did not slow down before the crash. The data recorded by the air bag control module showed, however, that her car came to a complete stop. The manslaughter charges were dropped and she has been allowed to plead guilty to one count of negligent driving. I’d say she was glad to have Big Brother along for that ride.
As you drive your vehicle to work, to the store, to school or on vacation, you probably don’t even think about the monitoring systems built into it. In fact, you may not even be aware that they exist. These sensors send information to tiny computers called Electronic Control Modules (ECM). The ECMs process this information to control things like fuel management, antilock brakes, cruise control, climate control, and airbag deployment. In addition, the ECMs run diagnostics, to detect problems. Have you ever seen warning icons lit up on the dashboard? They were turned on by an ECM.
Probably the most useful ECM is the Airbag Control Module (ACM). It constantly reviews data to determine whether any of the air bags should be deployed, monitoring wheel speed, engine speed, throttle position, brake application, steering wheel position, occupant presence, seatbelt usage and even outside air temperature. If pre-set thresholds of acceleration or braking are exceeded, the ACM starts recording. These systems typically record data from about 5 seconds before and 5 seconds after airbag deployment. We think of this as the vehicle’s “black box,” similar to an airplane’s flight data recorder. Accident reconstructionists and forensic engineers rely on this data for crash analysis, adding hard data to soft observations by eyewitnesses.
You’re probably more familiar with the anti-lock brake system (ABS). The controller monitors speed sensors located on each wheel. If there is a sudden, extraordinary deceleration, the ABS reduces and increases the pressure to the brake so that the tires slow down at the same rate as the car and don’t lock up.
Electronic stability control systems (ESC) help minimize loss of steering control in a skid. Working constantly in the background, the ESC measures the steering wheel angle and compares it to the vehicle’s actual direction. If the two don’t match, the ESC intervenes to correct the skid. Unfortunately, not all vehicles have electronic stability control; the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that up to 10,000 fatal crashes in the U.S. could be avoided each year if all vehicles were equipped with it.
When we represent a victim of a motor vehicle accident, we use every tool available to us to pursue the negligent driver and obtain compensation for the injured person, and that includes data captured by ECMs. Through our many years of experience in personal injury litigation, we have developed relationships with experts in many fields, including accident reconstruction. If Big Brother was watching, he may just tell us what we need to know to win your case. Call Steve Heisler, The Injury Lawyer, at (410) 625-4878.