New Devices in Cars Are Helping Fairfax County Police Answer Car Crash Questions

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Despite many drivers staying home this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, fatal car crashes are continuing in Fairfax County, police say.

However, a new device is helping answer important questions families have when a loved one is involved in a crash.

Many drivers might not even know it's there, but many new vehicles have a small computer that can tell officials like Fairfax County Detective Christopher Elliott a lot about a car crash.

Think of it like the black box on an airplane.

The detective plugs a laptop with special software into the same port a car mechanic would, if the check engine light is on.

The black box records the following information when the vehicle is in a crash:

  • Speed
  • Abrupt turns on the car's steering wheel
  • Whether or not the driver slammed on the breaks during the crash

Detectives can access this information with a driver's permission or a search warrant, signed by a judge.


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"We do our best to get as many as answers for the families who are involved in these cases and that's an answer they like to know—how fast were they going?  Were they wearing a seatbelt?" Elliot said.

The black box's information can serve another purpose too. The information is admissible in court and judges may consider it when ruling on traffic cases.

But more than anything, Elliott says this small box can provide answers to families struggling to understand how a loved one was injured or killed in a crash.

Elliott says some people have expressed privacy concerns about the black box.

The detective says the box only records data during significant events, like crashes, and police need permission or a warrant to access that information.

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