Finding and Turning off a Car's Black Box

Does your car have an event data recorder?

Interior shot of car with deployed airbag
In some cases, tampering with an EDR may cause the airbags to deploy.

 The Image Bank / Getty Images

If you bought your car within the last few years, then it almost certainly contains a so-called black box. These devices are technically called event data recorders (EDRs), and they can keep track of everything from how fast you were traveling prior to an accident to whether or not you were wearing your seatbelt at the time.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 95 percent of vehicles sold in the United States contain some form of EDR. Even as far back as the early 2000s, tens of millions of vehicles sold in the United States had black boxes installed.

Since event data recorders are highly integrated into the electronic control systems of the cars they monitor, and many are built right into airbag control units, simply unplugging or turning them off is usually not an option.

So, where do you go from there?

How to Identify Whether Your Car Has a Black Box

The easiest way to find out whether your car has a black box is to scour the owner’s manual. Although the NHTSA refused to order manufacturers or dealers to disclose the presence of EDRs when the agency first ruled on the matter in 2006, it did issue a regulation that requires some form of disclosure in the owner’s manual. If there is absolutely no mention of an EDR in your owner’s manual, and your car was built after the 2006 ruling standardizing black boxes, then it's possible you do not have a black box in your car.

It’s important to note that the 2006 ruling gave automakers six years to comply. That means cars and trucks built between 2006 and 2012 could feasibly have EDRs without any form of disclosure. And one year after the ruling became enforceable, 96 percent of all new vehicles in the US came with EDRs installed anyway.

Turning Off or Removing Event Data Recorders

Turning off, disabling, or removing an EDR is typically difficult or impossible. The difficulty stems from the fact that the location and appearance of an EDR may vary from one make to another and even within different models produced by the same manufacturer. The other issue is that EDRs are often built into an airbag control module, secondary restraint system (SRS) module, or electronic control module (ECM), which means they cannot be removed or tampered with.

Even when a vehicle has a discrete component that only functions as an EDR, it is almost always tied into the airbags or SRS in some way. This is particularly true of newer vehicles, and you may find that even if you manage to locate a discrete EDR, your airbags may deploy as soon as you start messing around with it.

If you’re really serious about disabling or removing your EDR, then your best bet is to look for someone else who has already successfully done so with a vehicle that precisely matches the make, model, and year of yours and then proceed from there.

Of course, there are potential consequences of tampering with an EDR that go above and beyond accidentally deploying your airbags. For instance, tampering with these devices is actually illegal in some jurisdictions. Just to be safe, you should always check your local laws before messing around with your EDR.

Buying a Car Without a Black Box

Although it may be difficult or even impossible to disable the EDR in your car, you always have the option of buying a used vehicle that does not have one. In some cases, you will have to dig pretty deep, but there are other automakers that only jumped on the bandwagon relatively recently.

While there is no comprehensive list of vehicles that do or do not have EDRs, one somewhat counterintuitive place to start your research is with the companies that build the devices that interface with EDRs, since they provide lists of vehicles that their equipment is compatible with. Companies that offer accident investigation services also provide lists of vehicles that they are capable of pulling data from. Find a vehicle that is not on one of those lists, and you may have found yourself a car that does not have a black box.