Fleetio Flicks: Fleet Safety and Black Boxes with Gary Johnson

With the various regulatory changes affecting vehicles recently, our Fleetio team wanted to find an expert who could shed some light on the subject. Gary Johnson works at VEAR, Inc. where he and his team analyze accidents and utilize black box recordings to find the root causes. We very much appreciate his contribution to the Fleetio Blog and hope that you learn something from our interview. We certainly did!

Here is a Transcript of our Interview:

Hi, my name is Gary Johnson. I'm with VEAR, Incorporated. VEAR is an accident reconstruction company, specializing in forensic engineering as it pertains to vehicular accident reconstruction.

What type of accidents do you get involved with?

Large crashes, either multiple fatalities or very high dollar losses where there is probably going to be litigation between either individuals, trucking companies or insurance companies. We primarily work for insurance firms and the attorney.

How do you gather information?

One of the services we provide is the download, preservation and interpretation of black box data in either passenger cars or commercial vehicles.

How are black box requirements changing?

The mandate that just came out, citation 49 cfr, Code of Regulations 563, which is now a federal law that requires manufacturers who record crash data to make the tools commercially available to retrieve and access this recorded crash data.

How is this going to change accident reporting?

When I was a police officer, unless we actually did an accident reconstruction, we would always put "unknown" for vehicle speed. With the black box data, they can start putting speeds on the report.

What other information can you download?

Typically it is vehicle speed, engine speed, throttle position, brake switch circuit status. Those were the big four in the early years. With the proliferation of stability control and yaw control and memory getting cheaper. Initially, there was just longitudinal axis accelerations - now you can see the left and right accelerations and you can see rotational acceleration. On some cars you can see steering wheel position or the degrees of rotation. Some cars will tell you if the stability control, ABS, or cruise control were active at the time of the crash.

Is this different for heavy trucks?

The number of parameters recorded in the trucks are much more: engine speed, throttle position, engine load, clutch status, brake status and fault code status for two minutes. Some of the trucks even record daily engine usage in two hour blocks of time and you can compare that to driver logs to see if the driver was reporting accurately - whether the truck was actually running, off or in an idle state.

Can black box data be accessed at any time?

In dealing with passenger cars: yes. It can be downloaded at any time, but data is recorded in circular buffer that is anywhere from 5 to 20 seconds long typically. In order to write the data from the buffer into the permanent memory, you've got to either deploy your airbags or rattle your car hard enough for it to think about deploying airbags - called a "non-deployment event." It will also write that data to a file. It's not like a police officer can pull you over and see what your driving behavior has been, because, at most, there is only 20 seconds worth of memory. Some manufacturers have a 5 mi/hr change in speed threshold in order to write data, even in a non-deployment event. In order to get a 5 mi/hr delta V (velocity), you pretty much have to crash the car.

Who owns the data in your vehicle's black box?

There are a lot of privacy issues associated with who owns the black box data. It is still being fought out in the courts and legislatures. It boils down to whoever owns the car owns the data. By the time we get involved, the cars are usually totaled. They have been purchased by the insurance company and they have ownership of the data. In most states, the data in the box transfers with the ownership of the vehicle.

What, in your experience, are some of the main causes of fatal crashes?

The government puts out a lot of vital statistics on crashes, but what I have seen is very simple: it's people not driving appropriately for their environmental conditions. They are not slowing down in the rain, they are not increasing their distance between them and the car in front of them in the rain or at night. They are overdriving their headlights. It's what I call "compound problems," which is following too close, driving too fast and being distraction. Those are the problems that I see. In a smaller number of cases, especially with heavy trucks, maintenance is the cause. On a typical 18 wheeler, you have 10 sets of brakes. I have seen one truck, of course it had been wrecked, that had three operational brakes. The other seven were either inoperative or defective to the point where they were not working as well as they should have been.

What technology do you think will curb potential dangerous situations?

I would like to see more cameras in vehicles - especially if you have a fleet. I like Drive Cam, which runs about $1,000 a piece. It's a dual camera unit (one facing out the windshield and another on the driver and occupants) and is a great way to modify behavior.

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