WASHINGTON -- Many motorists don't know it, but it's likely that every time they get behind the wheel, there's a snitch along for the ride.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Friday proposed long-delayed regulations requiring auto manufacturers to include event data recorders -- better known as "black boxes" -- in all new cars and light trucks beginning Sept. 1, 2014.
But the agency is behind the curve. Automakers have been tucking the devices, which automatically record the actions of drivers and the responses of their vehicles in a continuous information loop, into most new cars for years.
When a car is involved in a crash or when its air bags deploy, inputs from the vehicle's sensors during the 5 to 10 seconds before impact are automatically preserved. That's usually enough to record things like how fast the car was traveling and whether the driver applied the brake, was steering erratically or had a seat belt on.
The idea is to gather information that can help investigators determine the causes of accidents and lead to safer vehicles. But privacy advocates say government regulators and automakers are spreading an intrusive technology without first putting in place policies to prevent misuse of the information collected.
Data collected by the recorders are increasingly showing up in lawsuits, criminal cases and high-profile accidents. Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray initially said that he wasn't speeding and that he was wearing his seat belt when he crashed a government-owned car last year. But the Ford Crown Victoria's data recorder told a different story: It showed the car was traveling more than 100 mph and Mr. Murray wasn't belted in.
Besides the upcoming proposal to put recorders in all new vehicles, the traffic safety administration is also considering expanding the data requirement to include as many as 30 additional types of data such as whether the vehicle's electronic stability control was engaged, the driver's seat position or whether the front-seat passenger was belted in. Some manufacturers already are collecting the information. Engineers have identified more than 80 data points that might be useful.
Privacy complaints have gone unheeded so far. The traffic safety administration says it doesn't have the authority to impose limits on how the information can be used and other privacy protections.
"Right now we're in an environment where there are no rules, there are no limits, there are no consequences and there is no transparency," said Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy advocacy group.
"The barn door is already open. It's a question of whether we use the information that's already out there," said Henry Jasny, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Automotive Safety.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said requiring recorders in all new cars "will give us the critical insight and information we need to save more lives."
"Many of us would see it as a slippery slope toward big government and Big Brother knowing what we're doing and where we are," Blair County Republican Bill Shuster, who is slated to take over the chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in January, has said. "Privacy is a big concern for many across America."