US automakers will be required, for the first time ever, to tell new car buyers if an event data recorder (EDR, commonly referred to as a 'black box')) has been installed under a new rule issued on Monday by the US Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The electronic EDR devices capture crash data in the few seconds before, during and after a crash. They do not capture any data unless there is a collision that is severe enough to cause the airbag to deploy. While automakers are not required to install EDRs, approximately 64% of 2005 model year passenger vehicles were equipped with the device. GM and Ford currently install the devices in virtually all new vehicles, according to US media reports. This new rule will not require automakers to install EDRs if they are not already doing so.

The new federal rule, which takes effect starting with 2011 model year cars, will require automakers who have chosen to install EDRs to note in the owner's manual that the safety monitoring equipment has been installed.

The rule also includes new requirements designed to ensure that the data collected by EDRs can be used to improve highway safety. For example, the rule requires EDRs to be more durable to protect data during a crash. The rule also requires automakers to collect the same type of crash data if they chose to install an EDR.

The agency noted that having access to uniform crash information from EDRs, regardless of the vehicle's manufacturer, will help investigators recreate crash scenes to determine the causes. The rule will support the development of new safety regulations based on accurate crash information that NHTSA collects from vehicle owners who agree to share information from their EDRs with the agency.

The safety agency said it also expects the new rule will enhance the value of automatic crash notification systems, including the Enhanced 911 emergency response system currently under development by making it easier for vehicles equipped with automatic crash notification features to provide accurate and immediate information to emergency personnel.

The new federal regulation will apply to all passenger vehicles and light trucks with a gross vehicle weight of 8,500 pounds or less. NHTSA will separately evaluate EDR use in larger vehicles.

The Associated Press noted that privacy groups have said many owners don't know the boxes are in their cars. Privacy experts also worry that the information could be accessed by anyone.

Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, which had asked the government to require the devices, reportedly called the rule-making a "halfhearted attempt," noting that it did not mandate the collection of the data by the government.

With more than 40,000 motorists killed on the roads each year, supporters told AP the black boxes give investigators and automakers extensive data that can help them design better vehicle safety features and improved roads.

"This is nothing more than replacing bad data with good data," said former NHTSA administrator Ricardo Martinez, who added that the rules will help bring "a landmark change in vehicle safety."

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents nine automakers, including General Motors and Ford, told The Associated Press it supported the rules, calling the devices "an important component of the vehicle safety system."

AP said 10 states have laws dealing with the devices, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many require manufacturers to disclose the presence of recorders in vehicles and clarify that the data is owned by the vehicle's owner and can only be accessed with his permission.

Jay Stanley, a privacy expert with the American Civil Liberties Union, told the news agency the government "punted on the most important privacy issues," such as whether the data is accessible to third parties without a judicial order or an owner's consent and whether the devices can be turned on or off.

"If these standards encourage broader adoption, it's important that we get the privacy rules of the roads pinned down so we can enjoy the benefits of this technology without worrying about the dark side of privacy violations," Stanley told The Associated Press.