Think You Are a Good Driver? Let’s See What Your Car’s Black Box Has to Say

Most people are completely unaware that their car has a black box. The device is known as an Event Data Recorder (EDR) and while it’s not yet mandatory, approximately 90% of cars on the road are equipped with this device. If you are wondering if your car has one, it should be disclosed in your owner’s manual. 

EDRs are similar to commercial aircraft flight-data recorders, but don’t record voices or GPS locations and only retain information during a crash event, and from 5 to 30 seconds immediately before. Some of the recorded data includes:

  • airbag deployment
  • speed
  • engine RPM
  • brake pressure
  • position of the accelerator pedal
  • seatbelt use
  • lateral and longitudinal acceleration

The original purpose of an EDR was to provide manufacturers with an airbag diagnostic tool, but today the police will often access this device and use the data to obtain convictions. While there are at least 12 US states that have laws regarding the ownership and use of EDR information, Canada does not have EDR specific legislation and this data is regularly used in the courts.

One of the better known Canadian EDR related cases is R. v. Gauthier. The defendant, Eric Gauthier, was found guilty of dangerous driving causing death based on evidence that included data extracted from his Pontiac Sunfire EDR. Montreal police were able to determine from 5 seconds of EDR data that immediately prior to impact that Mr. Gauthier was driving at close to three times the speed limit.

Vehicle information and your insurance rates 

It appears that most people have no problem with the police using EDR information in an accident investigation, but what if you’ve never had an accident and an insurance company wanted to regularly access your car’s information to determine your insurance rates? Knowing how quickly you accelerate, corner and break, the time of day you drive and the miles driven can help the insurer better understand your risk of having a claim and provide you with a more accurate insurance cost.

Using variable driving information to determine insurance costs is known as Usage Based Insurance or Pay-As-You-Drive (PAYD) insurance. While a typical annualized insurance premium is based on your reported usage at time of application and other assumptions, a PAYD system also relies on verified information such as regular odometer readings. As mileage and other driving data can change from one month to the next, customers pay a premium that could increase or decrease based on the latest reported information and the insurer’s risk assumptions.

There are three types of PAYD systems:

1. Mileage based

2. Mileage, plus amount of time or time of day driven

3. Mileage, time, date and some of the same variables monitored by your EDR such as brake pedal force

While approximately 80% of major US auto insurers have a PAYD option, many rely on a simple mileage based calculation and may limit it to commercial clients or cars equipped with OnStar systems. Participation is voluntary and discounts typically range from 15% to 30%. One of the best known PAYD systems is offered in the US by Progressive Insurance.

If you watch any US television, it’s hard to miss the commercials for Progressive Insurance and their ultra-enthusiastic cashier named Flo describing the huge premium discounts available with Snapshot. Snapshot is a small device that plugs into the diagnostic port of your car’s computer system (typically located below your steering column) and it monitors some of the same vehicle information collected by your EDR. How often you slam on the brakes, mileage, and time of day driven are automatically sent to the insurer through a cellular connection. As long as you drive within their safe limits, you are entitled to a discounted premium.

Snapshot data can be viewed through Progressive’s secure website and this provides customers with an opportunity to make changes to driving habits that will lead to bigger discounts. This can also have additional benefits like reduced wear on the car and improve fuel economy. If a customer fails to stay within the safe limits, the discounts will be reduced or eliminated, but Progressive claims it will not use this data to increase rates. In the event of a claim, this insurer also promises that the data will not be used without the customer’s permission.

The Snapshot program has been successful for Progressive and similar real-time systems are likely to become available from other major US insurers. In Canada, no comparable systems currently exist. This probably reflects the significant setup costs, technological issues and the challenges of complying with the many differences between provincial insurance regulations.

What are your feelings about access to your driving data? Is police access to your EDR data a serious privacy concern for you? If a device like Snapshot was available in Canada, would you consider installing one in your car? Please share your thoughts.


  1. I would never offer that information up to anyone. Its just too invasive. It’s part of our increasing surveillance society that is slowly chipping away at privacy. I find it rather creepy to have some bureaucrat (whether government or insurance company) as a back seat driver.

  2. Great post! As an occasional driver who pays an inflated premium due to the driving habits of my demographic peers (youngish men), I would be first in line to sign up for pay-as-you-drive insurance.

    Nor would would I mind having EDR data used to prevent dangerous driving. There are 2000+ fatalities and 10000+ serious injuries on Canada’s roads every year. If it prevents a significant number of these tragedies, and if appropriate safeguards are in place against misuse of the data, I don’t mind the government mandating comprehensive EDRs in all vehicles and monitoring the data from them on an ongoing basis.

    I don’t buy the privacy argument. We drive on public roads, and when we drive poorly we put the public at risk. The notion of driving habits as a protected sphere of privacy was raised to oppose impaired driving laws and mandatory seatbelt laws; thank heavens it didn’t succeed back then. I hope it doesn’t stand in the way of more comprehensive and mandatory EDR, and safer roads, either.

  3. I found out about this five years ago when I had an accident. I found it scary at that time, that this could be a tool used by police to find out what happened during an accident and insurance companies to decide how they deal with drivers and premium rates… and after reading your article… like David said… creepy… totally invasive measure… I would never agree to allow such access to the police or insurance company… but I do not think we could stop it from happening…

  4. On the privacy side, think of it this way. How would you feel if a police car followed you and watched your every move everywhere you went?

  5. I think it is easy to reflexively see this as a privacy intrusion, but driving is a privilege, not a right, and nobody has the right to drive unsafely. You are engaging in an activity that, if done poorly, destroys lives. I don’t believe in a privacy interest in how you drive (where you drive is a different matter)

    I would be more concerned with reliability of these devices than I would with privacy.

  6. This note is a useful elaboration of some of the issues I raised earlier this month in my column about the ‘Internet of things’, in which there was some discussion of the information that one’s car can collect and the use that might be made of that information.

    Combine the information from your car and the information from your cell phone and those who access that information – law enforcement? insurance? ex-spouses? employers? thieves? – may have some interesting possibilities for interference with your quiet enjoyment of your goods (and life).

  7. In response to Robert Blanc’s concern about reliability, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration measured EDR accuracy using 37 crash tests over a wide spectrum of impact conditions. The conclusion was that EDR information is generally reliable.

  8. “It appears that most people have no problem with the police using EDR information in an accident investigation”

    As Wikipedia would say, [citation needed]

  9. David Collier-Brown

    A side comment: if driving on public roads were really a privilege, the test would not be “are you safe enough to drive” but “how much are you willing to pay” (:-))

  10. I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Canton’s argument. My vehicle is my property, and I view it as incredibly invasive. I would never voluntarily provide the EDR data from my vehicle for the purposes of determining an insurance rate. I would agree to allow the information to be used by police during accident investigations, provided the appropriate judicial authorizations (or judicial oversight to some degree) was implemented.

    Further, I would question the longitudinal reliability of the EDR units. How many variable are present for a vehicle that was manufactured in 1998? How about 2004? Does wheel size/tire size modification have an impact? What if the vehicles electrical system has an intermittent bad ground wire issue? What about ABS malfunctions? Or variants on brake pad and rotor combinations? What if I install high quality porcelain brake pads with vented discs? It is arguable that my vehicle will stop significantly quicker with a high end set up such as this. Was this considered in the scope of the crash tests?

    I would think that only 37 crash tests are just the tip of the iceberg, and hundreds of variables would have to be incorporated to get a really solid look at the reliability of EDR readings.

    At the end of the day, this is a very controversial issue.