Fraud fighters are constantly looking for new approaches to old problems while sometimes applying old approaches to new ones.

Within the realm of auto claims, p&c insurers devise strategies that meld biomechanical engineering with investigative acumen and the latest technologies. 

Although event data recorders (EDRs)—also referred to as “little black boxes”—have been around for years, insurers are finding new ways to better utilize the data they collect in order to make more accurate liability determinations. To this end, a sister industry has emerged to offer various products to enhance the value of EDRs. Some of these products may ultimately impact auto claims handling in a meaningful way.

The Crash Data Retrieval (CDR) tool, for example, is one such product that is assisting insurers in accident investigations today. The CDR tool uses a combination of hardware and software to read crash data found in a vehicle’s EDR.

Anatomy of an EDR

Sensors located throughout the vehicle feed information back to the “brains” or electronic control units (ECUs), contained within the vehicles Air Bag Control Module (ACM),which is typically found in a fairly well-protected area—for example, under the driver’s seat, the center console, or in another protected location. 

If a car hits a tree, the standard EDR data will reflect the exact speed of the car upon impact; the acceleration or deceleration for a number of seconds before and just after impact; show whether the foot was on the brake or still on the gas; and offer many other items of fact. Now imagine a precise, multi-second looping device that records and saves data at each and every triggering incident.

Using this real-world data, the government can develop more effective occupant protections and motor vehicle safety programs, while manufacturers can collect information with which to improve vehicle safety in a crash event, thereby enhancing safety in future generations of vehicles. Collected data can provide valuable information on the severity of the crash, operation of the air bag, and what deployment decision strategies were used during the event. 

Some of the collected data points include any change in forward crash speed; the maximum change in forward crash speed; the time from the beginning of the crash at which the maximum change in forward crash speed occurs; whether the gas pedal was pressed and whether the brake was applied, whether the driver’s seat belt was buckled before the crash; whether the air bag worked correctly; and so on.

Under specific conditions, the EDR will also record the following information: sideways acceleration or force; forward or rearward acceleration or force; vertical acceleration or force; engine RPMs; whether the vehicle rolled over; steering wheel operation five seconds before the crash; and a host of other items listed in the table on the last page of this article. 

There is nothing new about EDRs. The automobile manufacturing industry initially developed them because it needed not only to make a safer automobile, but to defend itself in cases of “he said/she said” litigation. The initial EDR technology caught the public eye during the years of phantom acceleration claims against Toyota and has progressed since that time.

Seconds of Data

With the technology exactly as it is, an EDR readout will provide technical vehicle and occupant information for a short amount of time just prior to an event, during an event, and for a brief period after an event. We are talking about seconds, not minutes, of data capture. It’s enough data to provide a claims adjuster or fraud investigator with a fairly good portrayal of what actually happened.

Witnesses can be less reliable, as there often are conflicting perceptions and accounts of a given incident. EDR technology, on the other hand, provides indisputable evidence. Even so, raw data is just that…raw data.

The EDR may record pre-crash vehicle dynamics and system status, driver inputs, restraint usage/deployment status, and post-crash data, such as activation of an automatic collision notification system. While this may draw initial comparisons to an airplane’s infamous black box, there are some key differences. The black box on a plane records details about the flight for the entire duration of the trip. An EDR System, on the other hand, records mere seconds of information. Furthermore, the airplane’s black box records sound, whereas the EDR unit does not.

Rather, EDR readouts supply technological details via numbers and measurements. As far as we know, none of them include a voice clip to the effect of ”Honey, slow down before you hit that…” followed by a loud noise.

Experts estimate that approximately 64 percent of vehicles had EDR capability during the year 2005. Each year, that percentage has increased. The data is there to be not only accessed but also applied in claims. As we established earlier, various commercially available tools are able to read and report EDR data. But what is involved in implementing such tools into the claims adjusting realm?

Navigating Trial Programs

At least three major insurers are currently conducting trials with EDR readers to ascertain potential cost savings. So far, the feedback has been promising. The considerations of a trial program include:

Standardization. While the majority of vehicles now on our highways have EDRs, there was never any absolute standardization between EDR reporting methods. EDR data is proprietary to each auto manufacturer. Ford has its version; Toyota has another version; and Honda, still another. So what is different now? The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has issued a regulation to standardize the data collected and recorded by an EDR. Beginning with the model year 2013, NHTSA defined the minimum data set (15 items) that must be collected if a manufacturer decides to voluntarily install an EDR in its vehicle lines, along with requirements for the range of accuracy of EDR data.

Additionally, as of 2014, it is proposed any new car sold in the United States must be equipped with an EDR. This also applies to foreign manufacturers; if you sell the vehicle in the united States, it must have an onboard EDR. Period. Since the designs are proprietary, many manufacturers have significantly added to those minimum data points defined by NHTSA. Items of measurement are continually being added to the units, limited only by cost and imagination.

Cost of Equipment. If Gigantic Insurance Company (GIC) has ten regional claims processing centers, the trial program shopping cart would look like this. Two regions (Atlanta serving the eastern U.S. and Los Angeles serving the western U.S.) would each own one top-of-the-line Premium EDR Tool (approximately $10,000 each). Satellite claims personnel; 24 on each side of the country, 48 in total would each get a basic EDR tool, currently priced just under, let’s say, $3,000 each. (Both commercially available units can take the EDR data snapshots. Premium kits contain additional cables to take the EDR data snapshots from more seriously damaged vehicles.)

Now add in the cost of training and the cost to deliver that training to those so designated, and GIC is up and running (hypothetically speaking) for less than $190,000. EDR tool hardware is purchased one time with an annual software renewal required to keep up with manufacturer changes and data reporting abilities. Considering the above scenario and the cost of today’s claims, the ROI of implementing an EDR tool could be impressive.

Application. GIC’s 50 units would be in constant use. Capturing the data is not rocket science. The readout is, in effect, just one more witness statement, untarnished by the ability to remember or interprete accurately, or any other human variable.

Recognition of Value. The old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words” has lost much of its luster with the march of technology, at least a visual image. To be clear, in the case of EDR there are no actual pictures. An EDR report is an objective printout of the crash data—or perhaps the lack of data if there was no measurable impact—and has withstood legal challenges because it rises above speculation. Courts can subpoena EDR data, and some states collect data under existing laws governing crash investigations. Moreover, insurance policies might have contract terms related to data collection from EDRs. It bears mention that nearly 100 court cases have used EDR data in the proceedings, showing a willingness to allow EDR data entered as evidence.

Right to Accessibility. So who owns the information collected by an EDR? Can the government, insurance investigators or police just waltz in and download the data? Ownership of the EDR and its data is a matter of state law, and such provisions vary considerably. NHTSA considers the owner of the vehicle to be the owner of the data collected from an EDR. The owner can give permission to download EDR data or courts can subpoena EDR data. Big city police agencies or Highway Patrol units that use the EDR tool collect data under their existing state laws governing crash investigations. For crash investigations conducted by NHTSA, the agency obtains permission from the vehicle owner before downloading the EDR data. Up-to-date policy language includes contract terms related to data collection from EDRs.

The Adventures of Rusty Haight

Once a year, late in the spring, the Las Vegas Speedway comes to life in a whole different way. An estimated 200 accident reconstruction specialists arrive to witness the latest antics (insanity being far too harsh of a word) of Rusty Haight, best described as the human crash dummy. Rusty, at last count, was within near striking distance (no pun intended) of hitting (again) the 1,000 crash mark. Those who know him well were said to be placing sideline wagers on what crash #1000 would look like.

Crashes are staged using a series of donated automobiles, trucks, and (this year) even a bus. They have been outfitted with cameras on the inside—to enable a slow motion view of the body’s movement upon impact. These cameras have placed at strategic outside locations to show, again in slow motion, the sometimes spectacular crumbling of the vehicles. Seeing is believing. A car traveling at 15 miles per hour (mph), straight into a concrete barrier, has near violent results for the properly belted driver. Any variation in vector can change the expected pattern of injury. Two cars, each traveling head-on at 15 mph, have the combined velocity of about a 30-mph crash; injuries increase accordingly.

During most staged crashes, Rusty wears a chest plate, which serves to spread the force exerted on his body from the seat belt. In the 15-mph crash, he left the plate behind—and while he suffered mightily, the pictures were all telling. In slow motion, two things were very evident. First, instead of the anticipated back/forth flexion extension, Rusty went up off of his seat and then rolled over the seat belt in a left torque. Exploring the expected biomechanical stressors versus the actual biomechanical stressors is fodder for another entire article. Suffice it to say, even the old pros, including Rusty, learned a thing or two.

EDRs trace their roots to the installation of air bags in vehicles. For air bags to operate properly in the event of a crash, automobile manufacturers developed control units to detect when a crash occurs and deploy the air bag if needed. Even the earliest EDR technology involved “thinking” units, albeit in a somewhat primeval form. (Input: big impact. Result: deploy airbags!) . As the air bag control units became more sophisticated, automobile designers realized data collected from the control units could be used to further improve air bag design. To collect these data points, designers increased the functionally of the air bag control unit to permit storage of the data after a crash so it could be downloaded and analyzed later. They also learned to store events that were significant enough to register, but not significant enough to deploy the airbag.

Automatic collision notification (ACN) systems and EDRs are separate functions. ACN is a system that can automatically notify a third party (such as a 911 operator or a call center) when a car is involved in a collision. Some cars and light trucks have ACN devices, such as GM’s On- Star™ system. Some of these systems use data from the EDR to determine crash severity, thereby helping to ensure an appropriate level of medical response. Technology allows the ambulance to be summoned even if the driver is upside down in a ditch and unconscious.

Who Owns the Information?

Ownership of the EDR and EDR data is a matter of state law, and such provisions vary considerably. The owner can give permission to download EDR data. In addition, courts can subpoena EDR data through court orders, and some states collect data under their existing state laws governing crash investigations. For crash investigations conducted by NHTSA, the agency obtains permission from the vehicle owner before downloading the EDR data. Recently drafted insurance policy wording may have contract terms related to data collection from EDRs.

Some vehicle manufacturers have licensed a third party to develop the downloading process tools that permit owners of vehicles to download data from an EDR. Contact the manufacturer of the vehicle for information on tools to download EDR data.

Emerging Applications

While EDR reports have been widely used by law enforcement and the accident reconstruction communities, there is currently a push to involve EDR reporting in the used car and fleet management industries to help improve the transparency of the vehicle being offered for sale and close the gap in vehicle history reporting.  A typical scenario would be to get the EDR data from a vehicle being brought in for a trade-in or lease return to get a true representation of the vehicles condition.  An EDR report will may help analyze the vehicle safety systems along with verification that there are no unreported stored events that may degrade the vehicles safety systems or the vehicle itself.