Travel | ON THE ROAD

Inviting Big Brother along for the ride

No longer exclusively a feature of airplane cockpits, black boxes are an option some motorists are having fitted to the family car.

In-car camera systems that record accidents have the potential to change our behavior — and curb the rising number of traffic fatalities occurring around the globe as more vehicles pour onto our roads. They also open a debate on the right to personal safety versus the right to privacy; such systems could one day evolve in tandem with GPS satellite-navigation systems to allow authorities to track your location and actually see where you are through the camera — in real-time.

And they are here. Honda has developed the world’s first manufacturer- built, in-car camera that reacts to sudden directional change or emergency braking.

Until now, it was basically one person’s word against someone else’s after a car accident, unless, of course, a driver’s indiscretions were caught on traffic or surveillance cameras, which is very rare. Car manufacturers responded to demands for more personal safety by improving vehicles’ safety equipment, which over the last couple of decades has evolved from seat belts to antilock brakes, air bags to traction control systems, and collision-absorbing body structures to precrash warning systems.

But in a rare move to improve safety, Honda is offering the Drive Recorder — providing the first indisputable truth on the cause of traffic accidents — as an option on its new Inspire saloon, and some observers in Japan are already calling it “Big Brother in the back seat.”

The Inspire is the first of 13 new models that Honda plans to fit with the devices. Though still in its infancy, the ramifications are far-reaching.

A small wide-angle CCD camera mounted between the windscreen and rearview mirror, and facing forward, captures video on a nonstop loop system. The i-Pod-size recording unit, which employs a 512-MB SD memory card, is fitted inside the Inspire’s center console box. When the system detects G-forces measuring more than 0.45 Gs — slamming on the brakes at 20 kph will generate this force — it automatically saves 20 seconds of footage: 12 seconds before and 8 seconds after the accident.

To check the details of an incident, the unit can be plugged into the car’s GPS sat-nav monitor and reviewed at will, providing indisputable proof of the cause and aftereffects of an accident. And that is why, according to one Honda source, only one out of every 10 Inspire buyers has opted for a Drive Recorder so far.

“It’s there, watching your every move. And that’s a privacy issue,” said Joji Takahashi, an Inspire owner who first balked at the idea of fitting the unit, but who reluctantly agreed after his wife strongly insisted. “It’s not checking up on who’s sitting next to you, or who you’re talking to, or where you’re going, but it is always there. It’s like a cop sitting in the back seat, ready to pounce as soon as you make a mistake.”

Takahashi’s wife, Yuko, however, took a different view: “If you’re driving safely and not playing around, then you have nothing to worry about. A Drive Recorder is peace of mind as far as I’m concerned.”

She was hit by a car from the side several years ago, and accident assessors placed 30 percent of the blame on her.

“I was doing nothing wrong,” she stressed. “With this device fitted, there are no gray areas. If someone hits you, (the device establishes that) they are 100 percent in the wrong.”

After using the device, her husband conceded that the Drive Recorder made him drive more responsibly.

“You are more concerned about your speed and you give yourself more time to brake, because you know that if you brake suddenly and hit something, then your own recorder could be a witness in court against you!” he said.

And that is the reason why Honda built and fitted the unit in the first place: to make drivers more aware of the rules of the road, and, in so doing, to slow people down and reduce the number of accidents. Toyota, too, has been experimenting with its own video recorder since late 2006 but has not fitted it to a production car yet.

Taxi driver Ryuji Abe, who has for the last two years been using an earlier experimental recorder from Drive Camera Ltd., reckons that it does more than increase your responsibility. “It also gives you peace of mind. As long as you’re driving within the road rules, of course,” he says.

Abe believes that regular drivers will resist fitting this unit at first, “because it kind of invades your privacy.”

But so long as it remains a choice on vehicles, there will always be a group of drivers who will flat-out refuse to attach it to their cars.

“There are a lot of people out there getting away with dozens of minor infringements every day, and if they are forced to employ the recorder and behave themselves, then I think there will be a huge backlash. So, if the use of this unit remains voluntary, then I think few people will actually choose to fit it,” Abe admits.

While I’m not aware of any consumer group that has come out against the device as yet, I believe that it is very unlikely the device will become mandatory until the privacy problem is resolved. Yes, linking the driver recorder to GPS systems and allowing authorities to monitor vehicles in real-time could be instrumental in catching kidnappers, bank robbers, or even terrorists. But such a pervasive system for monitoring citizens goes far beyond the fingerprinting of people when they enter countries such as Japan and the U.S. Just how far are we willing to go to feel safe?

One aspect of this puzzle that may have a pivotal role in the spread of these devices is insurance. At present, cars fitted with safety systems such as air bags, ABS and traction control attract lower insurance premiums than cars without them. But, amazingly, cars with video recorders are rated at the same premium as cars without them. Apparently, a sufficient amount of real-world data has yet been gathered to substantiate the worth of such technology.

In the near future, however, if they are found to offer users clear-cut benefits, such as indisputable proof of innocence in a traffic accident, then their application could lead to cheaper insurance fees. And if that happens, a lot more people may choose to see these devices less as invasive of their privacy and more as persuasive in guaranteeing innocence in accidents and personal safety.

Peter Lyon is a 20-year motoring journalist who covers the Japanese automotive industry for more than a dozen publications worldwide.

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