We’re being watched

February 2, 2011 by Bruce Landsberg

Big Brother is watching. Red light cameras are gaining credence in the traffic safety world.   A study just released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that traffic fatalities dropped by 26% over a five year period in DC. The average decline in other cities with cameras was 13%.  The article in the Washington Post didn’t note that fatalities were down overall but the point was that camera enforcement was making a positive impact.

DC issued over 85,000 citations and netted about $7.2 million in a one year period while redeploying about 100 officers to crime fighting rather than traffic detail. Was it just about the money? Rear end collisions went up slightly as suddenly law-abiding drivers decided that running the well-marked enforcement areas perhaps wasn’t such a good idea.  The study noted that these caused fewer serious injuries and deaths than T-bone crashes or flattened pedestrians/cyclists.

So what does this have to do with aviation?  Many new glass cockpit aircraft, which are the vast majority of deliveries these days, are equipped with flight data monitoring (FDM).  Speed, altitude, heading, power setting and configuration can often be examined after an accident. We can often see that the pilot was high on an approach but made up for it by being fast. No big surprise when an aircraft slides off the end.

The  FDM often helps pinpoint the causes of an accident. Usually it will be something the pilot did or did not do and the FDM provides a unbiased view of the facts.  That makes it at least a little harder for creative interpretations by plaintiff attorneys to shift blame to a manufacturer.  It can also make it much easier when the hardware actually does fail.  Like the unblinking eye of the camera, the FDM just quietly gathers data which is a good starting point for discussions of who’s responsible and how to fix something.

It seems like a good direction for getting to the root cause of accidents. You may have some other views.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Rick

    Bruce is AWESOME! BTW, Big Brother has been watching us for years! I doubt anyone in a metropolitan area can travel more than a mile or two without being on someone’s camera. It’s a fact of life!

  • Steve Barber

    I do not mind being watched when the purpose is to increase safety by providing data for determining facts regarding an incident. Unfortunately, government has a habit of introducing things, ostensibly for these purposes, that become a means for misusing its authority for the purpose of increasing its revenues and/or its already far too intrusive meddling in our lives. Being required to make such data available, absent some triggering incident involving damage to aircraft or injury to someone, is an invitation for such misuse.

  • Earl

    If I hadn’t had an intermittant transponder on an IFR flight from Texas to Iowa, I wouldn’t have been surrounded by 8 Feds with guns at a little “mom & pop” airport. You & I know that the Big Brother’s primary use will not be to analyze post accident events.

  • Earl

    And, since 97% of accidents are caused by pilot error, does GA need a “black box”?

  • Richard

    The REAL question becomes “Who will own the rights to this information”?
    The pilot? The avionics manufacturer? The aircraft owner? Certainly the Government will assert its “need to know” as well, if through no other reason that eminent domain. Without the pilot actually owning the rights to the information, there will be no protection against self-incrimination.

    My attorney always says “If you ever get in trouble, innocent or not, keep your mouth shut. The authorities, as nice as they may seem, are on a single-minded mission to collect evidence that can be used against you in a court of law; under the 5th amendment to the US Constitution, you are absolutely under no obilgaton to help them hang you.”

  • Kane

    This is like slashing a patient’s throat to stop the spread of his cancer. There are more direct ways to stop the blood-sucking ambulance-chasing lawyers. Let’s work on those: Loser pays. Award direct damages only. Eliminate contingency arrangements.

  • Tom Wilson

    Poor means do not justify good ends. The potential abuse from automated monitoring is an immense risk to freedom, and we should never bargain security for enslavement. No one has a right to know when, where or how you travel.

  • Rex

    How much of our flying freedom are we willing to give up in the name of”safety”? The Feds have been trying for the last 25 years to restrict, control, mandate, and shut down GA. Now we have ADS-b, mandatory re-registration, issues with getting access to your aircraft, etc, etc. Now they want a black box too?? How much are these black boxes, who is going to have access to the data, what is your fine going to be if you don’t report your data? Jefferson said ” Those that are willing to give up their freedom for safety, deserve neither.” Flying is more risky than walking and all of the Federal rules and oversight that they can dream up cannot change that. If you follow their convoluted logic to its inevitable conclusion, in order to be perfectly safe, no one is allowed to fly!!!

  • Bruce Liddel

    Steve Barber and Tom Wilson are absolutely correct.

    Anyone defending RLCs has a serious credibility problem with me, and with the National Motorists Association.

    For more information: http://www.motorists.org/red-light-cameras/

  • Kimberley

    The problem with the red light cameras is that they’re a money maker for the cities where they’re installed-nothing more. T-bones may have been reduced, but rear-enders have increased dramatically. Simply adding one more second to the yellow light reduces accidents more effectively than red light cameas.

    That said, it seems to me that any incedent will end up with a fine. With these FDM’s, I fear that these boxes would be modified to transmit data remotely on demand. Next thing you know, citations from the FAA in the mail for a violation from a myriad of rules and regulations that most have no idea exist. All in the name of safety.

    What ever happened to common sense?

    Ain’t technology wonderful???????

  • George

    This is just one more reason to not become a pilot. Already pilots have enormous liability exposure. This technology will not make things safer, but it will ruin the lives of many more pilots and their families. Also, it will drive up the cost of insurance because the insurors will begin charging more for aircraft without a big brother installed.

    Bruce, your use of the phrase “The FDM provides a unbiased view of the facts…” is presumptuous. It presumes that all the sensors are working perfectly, the interfaces are perfect, and the software is perfect. These presumptions will be yet another “guilty until proven innocent” barrier for pilots involved in incidents. Really, I’m surprised that a senior member of AOPA would make such a statement.

    I can’t afford a new airplane, but if I could I would not buy one with a glass cockpit for this reason alone.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Appreciate all your thoughts – well spoken. And I appreciate the civility of the discourse which seems to be in short supply in many areas these days – especially on the web!

    I’ve written before in the magazine about the advent of the FDM and as many of you know – practically all cars built since 1990 have some form of monitoring built in. It has been useful in a number of lawsuits both against manufacturers and other drivers in getting to the facts. To the George’s point that devices are not perfect – are there more miscues than depending on eyewitness testimony or after the fact investigation? — That might be worth some additional inquiry. As for enforcement – I’ll check with Yodice but I’m not aware of a single case where FDM has been used for enforcement purposes.

    Sometimes the waters get muddy as in the case of the Runaway Toyota syndrome. I had a Camry for three years never had a problem – which doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. In some respects it was quite handy – in traffic all you had to do is flash your lights and blow the horn. People assumed that it was a runaway and moved aside – it has like having a personal HOV lane ( Just kidding) .

    We’ll need to do some more study on this one .Rex’s comment regarding the quest for perfect safety is a valid one – You’re giving me something to write in the magazine in the future.

    Good comments —–

  • Mark McCormick

    The FDM problem hit the airlines with glass cockpit airplanes. These airplanes have CD-ROM recorders that burn up to 25 hours of data. Far more data the the crash survivable recorder. Guess what the FAA wanted to do? Seize all the data and automate the violation process! No different from a red light camera! ALPA and the airlines beat this back and now ALPA controls the data and does that analysis and keeps the pilots identities confidential. If a serious issue arises ALPA deals with it. This has been a successful system. Part 91 operators need to figure out way to destroy this information or it WILL be used against you. You own it, get rid of it.

  • Richard

    How much airspace have you seen in the past 50 years go from ATA to TRSA to TCA to Class B? Tons and tons….You realize that the Government’s goal is 100% Class A airspace from the ground up everywhere, and ADS-B is the new tool that is going to allow this to happen. The public already believes that we all fly under positive control at all times, so why not?

    Government-owned FDM fits rather neatly into this little scheme. In the ATC world, they call it the “snitch” machine.

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