Data recorders "help our engineers understand how cars perform in the real world, and we already have put them on over 90 percent of (new) vehicles without any mandate being necessary," Bergquist said.
Safety advocates, however, say requiring data recorders in all cars is the best way to gather a large enough body of reliable information to enable vehicle designers to make safer automobiles.
"The barn door is already open. It's a question of whether we use the information that's already out there," said Henry Jasny, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Automotive Safety.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that requiring recorders in all new cars "will give us the critical insight and information we need to save more lives."
"By understanding how drivers respond in a crash and whether key safety systems operate properly, (government safety officials) and automakers can make our vehicles and our roadways even safer," LaHood said.
The National Transportation Safety Board has been pushing for recorders in all passenger vehicles since the board's investigation of a 2003 accident in which an elderly driver plowed through an open-air market in Santa Monica, Calif. Ten people were killed and 63 were injured. The driver refused to be interviewed and his 1992 Buick LeSabre didn't have a recorder. After ruling out other possibilities, investigators ultimately guessed that he had either mistakenly stepped on the gas pedal or had stepped on the gas and the brake pedals at the same time.
When reports of sudden acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles cascaded in 2009 and 2010, recorder data from some of the vehicles contributed to the traffic safety administration's conclusion that the problem was probably sticky gas pedals and floor mats that could jam them, not defects in electronic throttle control systems.
"Black box," a term for a device whose workings are obscure, is most widely used to refer to flight data recorders, which continually gather information about an aircraft's operation during flight. Aircraft recorders, by law, are actually bright orange.
Some automakers began installing the recorders at a time when there were complaints that air bags might be causing deaths and injuries, partly to protect themselves against liability and partly to improve air bag technology. Most recorders are black boxes about the size of a deck of cards with circuit boards inside. After an accident, information is downloaded to a laptop computer using a tool unique to the vehicle's manufacturer. As electronics in cars have increased, the kinds of data that can be recorded have grown as well. Some more recent recorders are part of the vehicle's computers rather than a separate device.
Rep. Michael Capuano, D-Mass., has repeatedly introduced legislation to require that automakers design recorders so that they can be disabled by motorists but has been unsuccessful in his efforts.
A transportation bill passed by the Senate earlier this year would have required that all new cars and light trucks have recorders and designated a vehicle's owner as the owner of the data. The provision was removed during House-Senate negotiations on the measure at the behest of House Republican lawmakers who said they were concerned about privacy.
"Many of us would see it as a slippery slope toward big government and Big Brother knowing what we're doing and where we are," Rep. Bill Shuster, R-Pa., who is slated to take over the chairmanship of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in January, said at the time. "Privacy is a big concern for many across America."
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration http://www.nhtsa.gov
Electronic Privacy Information Center http://www.epic.org
Follow Joan Lowy at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy