Safety Pilot

How much data should we collect?

April 1, 2011

LandsbergIn a recent Air Safety eJournal, my mostly weekly blog, I cited a study released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety touting the benefits of red light cameras. The Washington Post noted that traffic fatalities were down 26 percent over a five-year period in D.C., significantly more than cities that didn’t employ such enforcement. D.C.’s traffic fine revenues were up by $7.2 million in one year with 85,000 citations issued. The D.C. chief of police redeployed 100 traffic officers to crime fighting and noted that “T-bone” crashes were down, along with fatalities. Rear-end collisions had increased slightly but caused fewer injuries. Not everyone, however, is quite as enthused about the cameras as the chief.

The tie to aviation is that most glass-cockpit aircraft have basic flight data monitoring (FDM). Airliners have been wired for decades, and now light aircraft are being similarly monitored. FDMs typically record airspeed, altitude, attitude, power settings, and heading. Sophisticated ones may also gather data on engine internal parameters and aircraft configuration. The NTSB likes them because accident investigation is enhanced.

I hypothesized that since the FDM was an unbiased observer, it might make it a bit more difficult for enterprising attorneys to blame manufacturers for pilot blunders. The converse is also true when the equipment actually does fail. The poll on my blog revealed 52 percent were against FDM and 44 percent had no particular objection.

From Steve: “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, which 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.”

From Tom: “No one has a right to know when, where, or how you travel.” Yet transponders make that point largely moot. Websites such as FlightAware follow us on IFR flight plans unless the tail number is blocked. The downside is that when flying in the public airspace the public can see you. The upside is the potential for midair collisions using passive or active cockpit devices is significantly reduced.

At a recent safety seminar I asked the crowd their thoughts and, as with the blog, the responses were varied. One pilot commented that there was an assumption that FDMs are accurate—it’s a fair point and my bet is that they’re probably more accurate in capturing details than some eyewitnesses, especially when measuring flight parameters before impact.

Let’s come back to Steve’s point that government is constantly collecting data and sometimes an overzealous enforcer decides the data is a great way to nail hapless pilots who infract one of hundreds of FARs. Yodice Associates, AOPA’s legal counsel and manager of AOPA’s Legal Services Plan, said there has not yet been a case when FDM data has been used. FAR 91.609(g) provides some protection relative to cockpit voice recorders. “There have been pilots who have used or tried to use their own data to defend against the FAA’s allegations,” Kathy Yodice told me. “Sometimes they download the track to show their reasonable reliance on the equipment’s current and functioning data, and sometimes they show a repair that needed to be done on the equipment to show their reliance on malfunctioning (unbeknown) data.” Could that be extended to FDM? The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects us from self-incrimination in criminal cases but not in civil activity, where the vast majority of aviation enforcement and litigation lies.

If your car is less than 20 years old chances are you’ve got an event-data monitor that tracks the automotive equivalent of the FDM. A number of states have enacted legislation to protect the data from general snooping, but when there is an accident or a court order, it is allowed into the hands of the authorities. There are some legal guidelines, and these devices have not been found unconstitutional.

The FAA maintains the Aviation Safety Information Analysis and Sharing system (ASIAS) “to promote the open exchange of safety information in order to continuously improve aviation safety. ASIAS enables users to perform integrated quires across multiple databases, search an extensive warehouse of safety data, and display pertinent elements in an array of useful formats. A phased approach continues to be followed in the construction of this system. Additional data sources and capabilities will be available as the system evolves in response both to expanded access to shared data and to technological innovation.” Nothing is said about enforcement—either way. Hmm.

Embry-Riddle and the University of North Dakota have equipped their training fleets with FDM. The airlines and their pilots have been dealing with reams of automated data that flag any number of out-of-tolerance issues. Special programs were put in place to protect pilots and to ensure that the data are used for safety rather than enforcement purposes. Seems like there should be a similar policy for GA. One of my Washington assignments is working with the FAA’s Office of Accident Investigation and Data Collection, owner of ASIAS. The topic is on our agenda.

Tell me what you think ( bruce.landsberg@aopa.org).

Bruce Landsberg flies aircraft equipped with FDM but has yet to see any of his data. It could be interesting.