EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Vehicular Black Box: Superior Court of Pennsylvania Finds Event Data Recorder Evidence Admissible to Prove Speed

Until reading this article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, I wasn't aware that a vehicle has an "event data recorder" akin to an airplane's "black box." And now, according to the Superior Court of Pennsylvania in Commonwealth v. Safka, such evidence is admissible to determine a car's speed at the time of an accident.

In Safka,

Ryan Safka was charged with two counts of homicide by vehicle, three counts of involuntary manslaughter, one count of recklessly endangering another person and several other vehicle violations. He waived his right to a jury trial and elected to proceed with a bench trial.

At that trial, 

During the Commonwealth's case [Appellant] challenged the admissibility and weight of evidence derived from what was described as an Event Data Recorder (EDR), a device in [Appellant]'s vehicle that records speed and things of that nature, much like the well[-]known "black box" does on commercial aircraft. Testimony was presented concerning the results of the examination of the EDR. [Appellant], although aware that the Commonwealth would present such evidence, did not seek to exclude it pre-trial but, rather, made an oral Motion in Limine seeking to exdude it at the commencement of trial. The [c]ourt allowed the evidence, but, in that it was a non-jury trial, made no determination at that time as the weight that it would be afforded, stating that it would be given the appropriate weight

Later, however, after the Commonwealth presented additional evidence, the judge deemed the EDR evidence admissible and announced a verdict finding Safka guilty on all counts. Safka thereafter appealed, claiming that the judge erred in deeming the evidence admissible.

In addressing this issue, the court noted that Pennsylvania still applies the Frye test for determining the reliability/admissibility of expert opinion testimony. Specifically, the court noted that

The Frye test consists of a two-step process, which is as follows:

First, the party opposing the evidence must show that the scientific evidence is "novel" by demonstrating that there is a legitimate dispute regarding the reliability of the expert’s conclusions. If the moving party has identified novel scientific evidence, then the proponent of the scientific evidence must show that the expert’s methodology has general acceptance in the relevant scientific community despite the legitimate dispute.

The court then found that had failed to prove that EDR evidence is novel:

The origin of EDR technology dates back to 1974....In 1994, General Motors was the first manufacturer to utilize it in a production vehicle....Other manufacturers then subsequently adopted it: Ford in 1997, Toyota in 2001, and Chrysler in 2005. The technology was originally designed to detect problems with the vehicle's safety system, specifically, the airbag deployment system....

To do so, the vehicle first monitors the two drive wheels to determine the speed of the vehicle....This information is then transmitted to the EDR, and stored in a temporary memory known as a buffer....The buffer continually collects and temporarily stores the last five (5) seconds of data....In the event of an airbag deployment, the EDR writes the information from the buffer to a permanent memory that can be retrieved after a crash....

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, who previously studied the use of EDRs and currently employs the technology in their crash investigations, recognizes the utility of this collected data....Furthermore, in 1997, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that EDRs be installed in all newly manufactured automobiles.

This evidence establishes that the technology has existed for almost 40 years, has been adopted by the major automobile manufacturers, and has been recognized as an acceptable tool used by accident reconstruction experts to determine a vehicle’s speed prior to an impact. It is not novel science; it is an accepted technology.

In an effort to deflect the technology's acceptance in the automotive industry, Appellant asserts that novelty exists, as there is no Pennsylvania case law addressing the use of this technology for accident reconstruction purposes. While correct, such an omission does not prove novelty. "If this court assessed 'novelty' of scientific evidence based on its previous use in court, we would be failing to defer to scientists in assessing the reliability of scientific methods."...We note that Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, and New Jersey have permitted the introduction of EDR data to establish the speed of a vehicle. For the foregoing reasons, we find that there is no legitimate dispute regarding the reliability of EDR technology necessary to consider it a novel science. Therefore, we deny Appellant's argument on this issue.



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