Your Data, Please!

Vehicle data is a well-guarded secret. The new European data law is intended to ensure transparency – and could raise police work when recording accidents in Europe to a new level. In the future, regulated access to vehicle data will also be essential for accident analysis and vehicle testing.

The planned regulations must also cover access to data that is required for sovereign activities such as vehicle inspection. Photo: Shutterstock – Kzenon

Mr. Orben, you are the President of the Network of Traffic Police of the European Union’s member states. What is ROADPOL good for?

Volker Orben: One example is that ROADPOL periodically initiates control weeks among police forces throughout Europe to ensure compliance with road traffic laws. In all countries, the police are tasked with monitoring road traffic. Without monitoring – and this has been scientifically proven – even the best traffic regulations to prevent the main causes of accidents, with regard to speed, alcohol, drug consumption, distance, compulsory wearing of seat belts and helmets, and distractions, are of insufficient use because the compliance rate would be comparatively low. Traffic monitoring increases compliance rates and ultimately saves lives. The control weeks’ results analysis is the top priority in the regular meetings and seminars of our network. The question is always: Which monitoring measures have the best effect? With the results of the Europe-wide control weeks, ROADPOL provides important insight into the frequency of violations that can be considered as causes, especially for serious accidents. This also attracts the European Commission’s attention. It is one of the reasons why ROADPOL is financially supported by the European Commission.

What about regulatory and police uniformity in Europe?

Orben: When it comes to implementing what works, the national legal framework naturally plays a decisive role. However, it is made clear time and again that the harmonization of traffic regulations in Europe would contribute to a higher compliance rate and thus to greater road safety. One example is the formation of emergency lanes, which is regulated differently or not at all in European countries. Apart from that, police forces in Europe are very heterogeneous when it comes to task assignment in the traffic sector. In Germany, for example, a police check must always be viewed holistically. In this respect, there is no traffic police as such in Germany. However, there are also countries that have a so-called traffic police force in terms of organization – and this force sometimes does not even have the legal authority to check passengers in a vehicle. ROADPOL promotes the holistic or integrative approach. 

What other sovereign tasks do traffic police forces in Europe have in addition to traffic monitoring?

Orben: One important activity is the recording of traffic accidents. In all countries, the police are expected to secure evidence for criminal and civil proceedings in the event of a traffic accident. This is primarily in the interest of the people involved in the accident. There is usually a person who caused the accident and a victim, whose rights are protected by the police recording of the accident. Civil proceedings for compensation for material, physical, and psychological damage after an accident can sometimes drag on for years. The less concretely and conclusively the police is able to determine the causes of an accident, the more difficult it is for the victim to assert his or her claims later – and vice versa. Evidence-based investigations are therefore a way of protecting the victims.

Volker Orben, President of ROADPOL. Photo: ROADPOL

But accident investigations by the police also have the goal of pursuing traffic violations?

Orben: The punishment of a traffic violation in the form of a fine or imprisonment has two objectives. As so-called specific deterrence, it is directed at the offender and says: “You made a mistake or deliberately violated traffic regulations – don’t do it again.” On the other hand, it is directed at all road users as a more general deterrence: “Be careful that this doesn’t happen to you, too.” Both objectives have the goal to prevent traffic violations that have been proven to lead to serious crashes – not to rip off citizens.

In times of increasing digitization of the transport sector, how does accident reporting typically proceed in Europe today?

Orben: Connected vehicles are already on the roads in a borderless Europe, and there will also be more and more automated vehicles in the future. In the event of traffic accidents, the police in all countries must be able to use simple measures to secure digital traces such as vehicle data. And this need does not exist only in the future. Even today, accidents can often no longer be fully resolved without reading out the data memories. I’m talking about, for example, accidents in which drivers claim that an accident was caused by malfunctions in driver assistance systems. So we urgently need further digitization of traffic accident recording. This also requires the European police forces to be digitally upgraded – efforts to this end are already underway throughout Europe.

In that case, the draft of the new data act must suit you well. Is the EU Data Act a suitable lever for getting the data you need?

Orben: The EU Data Act is intended to ensure data access for the private and public sectors and to set incentives for data sharing. In the current version of the data act, access to data for criminal prosecution is still excluded in Art. 16(2). However, if the traffic violation that led to an accident is of criminal relevance, then the principle of legality requires the police to initiate prosecution measures. Against this background, access to vehicle data in traffic accident investigations must also be permissible for criminal prosecution – the draft version of the data act must therefore be adapted accordingly. As a result, however, the EU Data Act is a viable approach to regulating the data access necessary for the police to perform their duties.

What can the data act do in terms of data access?

Orben: The data act obliges product manufacturers – and therefore also vehicle manufacturers – to ensure data transparency. Users shall have easy access to data generated by the product, in this case the vehicle. Users must also be informed about how they can gain access to the data. This means that an important prerequisite has already been met: We must create a simple and concrete way to access the data. This path should also allow sovereign authorities such as the police to gain access if this is necessary to fulfill their duties.

What might this path to data access look like?

Orben: The problem of access indicates a need for regulation. A solution that provides direct access to the driving data not only for the vehicle manufacturer but also for a neutral and independent body would be helpful. Authorized data users, such as the police, can contact this body and receive the data they need to perform their official duties. In practice, this could mean that the police request the stored driving data from the authorized body as evidence for investigating traffic accidents, and receive it in readable plain text.

What restrictions currently stand in the way of using data from motor vehicles?

Orben: At present, vehicle manufacturers have quasi ruling knowledge. In investigations – and now I can only speak for police tasks in the traffic sector – the vehicle manufacturers have to be asked for benevolent cooperation, usually on the basis of decisions by the public prosecutor’s office or the court. There is no regulated procedure via a central, independent body that supports the investigating authorities. As a rule, experts are called in to process the data provided in a wide variety of formats by the vehicle manufacturers, and use it to draw conclusions about the accident or its cause.

Do your colleagues in Europe already have experience with data queries when automated vehicles are involved?

Orben: Our ROADPOL members are increasingly reporting data queries that have been more or less successful. We sometimes have an uneasy feeling and concerns about whether data supplied by vehicle manufacturers is really the unaltered data generated by the vehicle. After all, vehicle malfunctions could also be the cause of an accident, which the manufacturer understandably does not want to disclose. This aspect makes even more clear why driving data must be stored directly with an independent body. Storing the data solely with the manufacturer interrupts the chain of evidence.

Will Big Brother always be sitting in the car with the possibility of sovereign data retrieval in the future?

Orben: We’re talking about data access in sometimes serious traffic accidents. The police have a concrete suspicion and already know the suspect, i.e. the driver of the vehicle involved in the accident. There is a very high and very concrete presumption of finding accident-relevant data. The time frame is also very concrete – usually five seconds before and 350 milliseconds after the crash are sufficient for accident reconstruction. So there is no question of Big Brother secretly and arbitrarily monitoring all citizens without suspicion.

Wouldn’t data be a fine thing for optimizing traffic monitoring?

Orben: As far as I know, there are currently no intentions or even demands in Europe to collect data independently of an accident incident, for example for traffic monitoring purposes. From the European Roads Policing Network’s point of view, we want to punish traffic violations – that is our job and serves road safety. But not at any price. We understand that there must be clear, restrictive provisions for constitutional reasons.

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ROADPOL

The European Roads Policing Network, or ROADPOL, is a network of traffic police forces in the member states of the European Union. The non-governmental organization is tasked with coordinating national traffic enforcement actions throughout Europe. Its main objective is to reduce the number of fatalities and serious injuries on Europe’s roads. With this in mind, ROADPOL is committed to ensuring that the police are able to secure all available evidence required for accident reconstruction in as many EU countries as possible. This also includes digital driving data. A key requirement in this context is reliable, unfiltered data access – even for technically less adept countries. Germany has been represented in the European network by the state of Rhineland-Palatinate since October 2016. As a registered association, ROADPOL is based at the German Police University in Münster.

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New Data Act

With the draft for a new data act presented on February 23, the European Commission is stepping on the accelerator to advance the digital transformation in the member states. While the data governance act, which was launched in November 2020, is intended to facilitate the sharing of data between sectors and member states, the data act will define who may use and have access to the data generated. The legislator’s ultimate goal is to give consumers and companies more say in how their data is handled. However, the use of data in the automotive sector in particular still leaves some questions unanswered. Together with the European Roads Policing Network ROADPOL, DEKRA has commented on the data act draft. The clear tenor: The planned regulations must also cover access to data that is required for sovereign activities such as accident analysis, vehicle inspection, and criminal prosecution. The data act draft is now on its legislative journey to the EU member states and the European Parliament. If everything goes smoothly, the law could come into force in 2023.

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