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A chip in your car could divulge useful information to police

On Oct. 19, Gary Lee Hosey will face a preliminary hearing to determine if he should stand trial for the deaths of four people in a horrific September car crash at a Las Vegas bus stop, allegedly the result of excessive speed and alcohol.

The burden of proof at that hearing is low: a “scintilla” of evidence. The district attorney’s office may call cops who responded to the scene, bystanders who saw the carnage and survivors still nursing their wounds.

But, ultimately, one of the most damning witnesses may not be a person at all. As the case moves toward trial, one of the most powerful witnesses for the prosecution may prove to be an integrated circuit, part of the electronic control module embedded deep inside the 2001 Monte Carlo Hosey was driving.

Since 1999, every car manufactured by General Motors (including the Monte Carlo) has contained a computer chip that records information very much like the “black boxes” we hear about whenever there’s a plane crash.

They’re called Event Data Recorders, or EDRs, and they were originally designed to monitor the deployment of airbags. They keep track of what a car is doing at the instant a collision occurs severe enough to cause an airbag to inflate. Among the data collected by the EDR: the speed of the car at the time of the crash, the throttle position, whether the seatbelts were fastened and whether the brakes were applied.

Clearly, EDRs are potent tools for police and accident investigators. But they also have some disturbing “Big Brother” implications: Who owns the data? You, the car owner? Your insurance company if you’re in a wreck? The cops? And do the cops have to obtain a warrant to access the info after an accident?

There are 13 states with laws regarding EDRs, and Nevada happens to be one of them. Purists can go to NRS 484D.485 to read the statute for themselves. Basically, the Nevada law defines what an EDR is and what it records, requires vehicle owner’s manuals to disclose the fact that such devices are installed and makes it a crime for the data to be downloaded by anyone other than the registered owner of the car or someone the owner has given permission to download the data.

There are a few exceptions, of course, the chief one being that police can download the information as long as they obtain a court order, essentially a search warrant. So, searching a car’s database in Nevada seems to mirror the laws regarding standard car searchers: Get the owner’s permission or get a warrant.

In the Hosey case, Metro executed a search warrant at the scene of the crash, according to Officer Marcus Martin of Metro’s public information office. “The ACM (Airbag Control Module) was removed and a ‘desktop download’ was performed at the traffic bureau. Then the module was impounded per LVMPD policy,” Martin said in an email to CityLife.

As to what that download revealed, Metro is referring those questions to the district attorney’s office. Sources say the speed of the car at impact was between 70 and 90 mph. One source pegged it at 81. The speed limit on the stretch of Spring Mountain Road where the crash occurred is just 45.

Hosey’s attorney, Dayvid Figler, says he hasn’t received all the discovery in the case yet, so he doesn’t know, officially anyway, what the speed was at the time of the crash and what other data may have been recovered from the control module.

This much is certain: The odds are very good your own car contains an EDR. Though the modules are not required by federal law, the National Highway Safety Administration set standards for the devices back in 2006 — when it was estimated that more than 90 percent of passenger cars were equipped with them.

So, if you’re ever in a single-car crash and even if there are no eyewitnesses, you might think twice about fibbing to the officer. If you were speeding, your own car could rat you out.