City police reading computer data from crash vehicles

Nigel Armstrong NArmstrong@TheGuardian.pe.ca
Published on January 9, 2013
Cst. Ron Kennedy, a traffic specialist with Charlottetown Police Services displays a crash data recovery system now in use by the department. It reads data collected and stored by a vehicle's airbag restraint system which can include vehicle speed, brake activation time and force, anti-lock brake activation, seat belt engagement and many other points of data.
Guardian photo by Nigel Armstrong

Charlottetown police are now obtaining data from vehicle computers after a crash, just like black boxes in aircraft.

The department demonstrated its Bosch Crash Data Retrieval kit to the Guardian Tuesday.

The device gets data from the minicomputer modules which control the airbag system, the roll-over sensor and the power-train senor of vehicles.

"Your airbag control module acts as the brain, whether your airbags are going to fire in a crash, whether your side curtains will deploy, whether your seatbelt pre-tensioners will engage," said Constable Ron Kennedy, a traffic specialist with Charlottetown Police Services. "It makes all those decisions in milliseconds."

Older air bag modules either didn't save or record that data, or did so in a non-standard way.

Up to 40 percent of all vehicles on the road, however, do have data that can be obtained by police, says an industry website.

Kennedy says that investigators do not need to obtain permission to download data from a vehicle involved in an accident.

"It's part of our investigation, like we look at any other kind of data pertaining to your car," he said.

The data has not yet been the subject of any court proceedings on P.E.I. but Kennedy says that it is proven technology.

"It has been tested quite often in Ontario and the courts are supporting it," he said.

The device is read-only so the kit cannot alter the sensor data, said Kennedy.

For years federal agencies in North America have been urging car manufactures to collect and store the pre-crash data in a standardized format and most vehicles now do that, said Kennedy.

"When your vehicle sensors indicate there is pressure coming on your bumpers, all of a sudden the system wakes up and starts making these calculations," he said.

"It looks at how fast you are going. In some of the newer vehicles it will look at whether there is someone in the passenger seat, their weight, and make all these calculations, whether to deploy the airbags.

"Some vehicles have a roll-over sensor to detect if a vehicle is going past a certain angle. If it gets an impact on the door it will fire the side curtains or the ones in the seats.

"Some of the newer vehicles have up to 12 bags in them. It's incredible," said Kennedy.

Newer cars can capture even more data, like the position of the throttle, even the position of the seat, whether it's fully back or forward and whether occupants are wearing their seatbelt.

Kennedy said that Charlottetown police do not depend solely on the data to reconstruct what happened during an accident.

"It kind of reconfirms after we have done a lot of our traditional reconstruction techniques," he said.