Automotive Event Recorders: Ally or big brother?

CarolinaFireJournal - Bill Tricarico
Bill Tricarico
04/21/2013 -

The scenario is all too familiar. An emergency vehicle involved in a collision with another vehicle resulting in bodily injury and property damage. Your driver had done everything correct — lights and sirens, full stop at the red light, checked each lane of traffic, and yet a car drove around the other stopped vehicles and struck the fire truck or ambulance. After the injured are cared for and vehicles removed, a witness suddenly comes forward to say he did not hear any sirens or see your vehicle stop. You already know a long string of legal issues are facing both your organization as well as your driver. Wouldn’t it be great if you always had an irrefutable witness who saw everything exactly as it occurred and is always correct? Well, such a witness already exists in the form of Automotive Event Recorders (AER).


While known by several different names, I am referring to cameras generally installed on the windshield of a vehicle with two lenses, one facing out and one facing the driver. Most of these cameras record consistently and sense changes in G forces saving the video before and after the G force event. Depending on the manufacturer and model, some retain all of the video and bookmark the events while others only retain the events. Again, various models may also retain speeding events, record GPS with the video, constantly record speed, and do a variety of other functions. One of these is a “panic button” which can be activated by your driver to capture dangerous driving activities by other drivers. Software accompanying some of the cameras will assist in organizing the information captured and managing a vehicle database to assist in evaluating driver behavior.

Another variation is managed or self-managed systems. The companies providing managed services have cameras which automatically send event images to a review center via Wi-Fi or cellular technology. Their employees analyze the event and forward the video to you with an evaluation of what occurred and suggestions to coach the driver or other remediation techniques to prevent recurrence. With the self-managed systems, management on a regular basis physically reviews the camera media and if they indicate events have occurred, the media card is removed and reviewed locally. Management then decides what actions to take to prevent recurrence. There is also a hybrid system available which electronically sends videos directly to management for review when the vehicle returns to its station. Each of these systems has advantages and disadvantages and you need to find the system that works best for your organization. Costs for these cameras range from a few hundred dollars each to over a thousand dollars depending on several factors including the variety of functions the camera is capable of doing. In addition, the managed systems also carry a monthly fee for monitoring. The self-managed systems generally have no costs above the price of the camera and media. Installation is usually the responsibility of the organization. Most systems are as easy to install as a radio or lights and sirens.

Event recorders were originally designed to capture crashes in an effort to help determine fault and more quickly adjust insurance claims. Shortly after they began being installed, fleet managers noticed that fewer accidents were occurring. Drivers became aware that the camera would capture every quick start, hard brake, sharp turn, and speed bump taken at 20 MPH. As a result, their driving behaviors improved, avoiding issues, which would cause an event on the camera. Another benefit of this is a reduction in maintenance costs. When drivers operate their vehicles more efficiently, brakes and tires last longer and fuel consumption is reduced. These items alone can help recoup camera costs fairly quickly and also remember that fewer claims can result in reduced future insurance costs.

Driver Reluctance

There is usually reluctance from the drivers when a camera system is proposed. Experience has indicated over the years however that these systems provide protection for the driver and the benefits far outweigh the concerns. There have been several instances where the cameras have supported the driver against accusations of wrongdoing. In these cases, drivers who felt the cameras were an intrusion found that the cameras can be a staunch ally. In addition video cameras seem to be everywhere today. Vehicle accidents are captured by security cameras, red light cameras and cell phones. Unfortunately these videos usually capture from a bad angle or are incomplete and such video evidence can improperly place blame. In addition, vehicle manufacturers are including Vehicle Data Recorders also known as “Black Boxes” whether on their own or in compliance with NFPA Standards in most vehicles which will surely be utilized as evidence in a potential court case. Since they are available, clear evidence from an AER is necessary to substantiate what actually occurred. A recent report from the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that prosecutors, juries, and the general public have come to expect video evidence when presenting a case and the lack of such evidence makes them suspicious. In addition, the use of safety devices such as AERs indicates a pro-active organization concerned with safety, which usually has a positive effect on juries.

The bottom line however is a reduction of emergency vehicle accidents. These accidents claim so many lives of firefighters and EMS providers every year that all measures that will potentially reduce the carnage should be explored. In addition to the deaths and injuries, damage to vehicles and equipment reduces the capabilities of first response providers and even further enhance the dangers of the job.

Part of a Larger Program

Of course AERs do not by themselves constitute a driver safety program — they are only a component. Reducing accidents takes several steps including:

  • Driver selection including regular reviews of drivers records.
  • Policies and procedures which clearly define the manner in which vehicles are expected to operate.
  • Driver Training which includes EVOC type training as well as regular refreshers at least twice per year.
  • Mandatory Accident Reviews of all accidents as well as near misses. When drivers know they will be held accountable for their actions, they will tend to act better.
  • A good vehicle maintenance program which meets or exceeds manufacturers’ recommendations and includes record keeping for the life of the vehicles.
  • Dispatch policies which prohibit use of lights and sirens for non-emergency types of responses.
  • Proper follow up on all near misses recorded by the AER. Simply capturing the video does not correct the problem nor does it guarantee future accident reduction. Drivers need to be counseled and videos used in training. The videos should be utilized in a non-threatening environment to coach the driver in a manner reducing the opportunity for future incidents. The lack of events triggered also reinforces good performance and should also be recognized.

The Systems Have Proven Themselves

Here at ESIP, we are constantly receiving questions with regard to these recorders. Do they really work? Can they make the situation worse? The answers are, yes, they really work and the situation is what it is, we can’t change that. If there was driver error then the video is a good source of training to prevent future incidents of a similar nature. From a claim handling perspective, it will allow the insurance company to handle the claim in an expeditious manner which usually is best for all concerned. These reduced expenses relate to lower long term insurance costs to your organization.

The bottom line is that these recorders provide a great boost to your safety program. They have proven themselves as an excellent means to manage emergency vehicle safety while reducing operating costs typically by 10 to 15 percent, which is extremely important in today’s budget conscious society, and most important, they save lives and reduce injuries to both civilians as well as emergency responders. Emergency service organizations have learned that embracing technology has made the job safer and this is another step in that direction.

For further information on event recorders, there are several manufacturers with informative websites or you may check with your insurance provider. Many insurance providers can assist in deciding the systems which would work best for your organization.

Bill Tricarico, is a Senior Risk Management Consultant for Emergency Services Insurance Program with over 25 years as a firefighter/EMT with the North Bellmore Fire Dept. holding many positions including chief and also served as Fire Commissioner for the City of Cortland, NY. Chief Tricarico has also spent nearly 40 years as a risk management consultant and is on the faculty of several fire service and EMS organizations.
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