Black Boxes, Smart Phone Applications, and Personal Injury Claims

By Sean Cassidy, Vice President – Sales & Marketing, Benchmark Independent Medical Examinations

Oakville, ON (Jan. 5, 2015) – Technology is growing at a very rapid pace, particularly in the field of mobile and handheld technology. We already know that insurance companies are beginning to embrace the idea of rewarding drivers with a reduction in premiums if they are willing to install a “black box” in their vehicles that monitors and records their driving habits. These vehicle monitoring systems can record driving styles and provide the insurer with a more accurate risk assessment of a particular policyholder.

However, there are sophisticated new smartphone apps being developed and experimented with that can provide data far beyond the level of information the current black-box monitoring systems can provide, especially if they can be integrated and used in conjunction with the information available from the vehicle’s black box. The telematics that can be provided even with currently available smartphone technology is impressive – acceleration, average speed, average braking deceleration, etc. – but this can be taken several steps further, because with the combination of the smartphone’s accelerometers, GPS, online mapping tools, and integration with the on-board black-box data, the amount of information that can be extrapolated is almost unfathomable.

Imagine if an app could analyze an actual accident and determine the potential for injuries.

An accelerometer is an electromechanical device used to measure acceleration forces; accelerometers have already been used in cars for years as the best method of detecting car crashes (sudden deceleration) and deploying airbags almost instantaneously, which has proven extremely reliable as it has been perfected over the course of the past 15+ years. And more recently, even more finely tuned accelerometers have been used in vehicles to trigger their Automatic Crash Notification (ACN) systems, where the actual G-forces of the crash are measured and the information sent to the various manufacturers’ customer support centres to advise of the incident.

To take it one step further, even more advanced accelerometers are being developed each year to control the Electronic Stability Control systems that monitor minute differences between the vehicle’s actual movement versus the driver’s steering and throttle input and automatically make the necessary corrections to avoid potentially dangerous situations before they happen. Technology is now at the point where the combined use of smartphone apps, accelerometers, and a vehicle’s black box offers the capability to predict the potential for injury in a crash based on G-forces and, more importantly, where the G-forces were sustained in the car.

For years, vehicle manufacturers and independent bodies have conducted crash testing, and we are all familiar with the star-based safety ratings that vehicle manufactures use to market their particular vehicles; this information is also instrumental in how the deployment and positioning of airbags has continued to be perfected.

The National Automotive Sampling System- Crashworthiness Data System (NASS/CDS) contains a selection of crashes from twenty-seven primary sampling units throughout the US. The in-depth investigation contains information on the vehicle, occupant, and crash characteristics. Injuries are recorded and registered according to the Abbreviated Injury Scale and approximately 5000 crashes are investigated annually. This real-life data showed that lateral median impact speed for non-seniors was 66 km/h, and for senior occupants, 67 km/h. For both age groups, the incidence of injury is highest in the impact speed interval between 40-80 km/h and delta-v interval of 20-40 km/h.(1) (Please refer to the footnote for further reading on the data above, which refers specifically to a study of the efficacy of side-impact air bags.) There is a wealth of evidence available indicating what type of physical injuries can be anticipated based on the severity of an accident, and today’s accelerometers are more than capable of measuring and reporting these G-forces during a vehicular crash.

In fact, the military is already doing something very similar to this in order to be able to recreate an event and determine the exact physical severity of the impact the soldier was exposed to. For example, they have been able to determine that even if a person doesn’t appear to have suffered any bodily injury after being in the vicinity of a blast, the blunt force and resultant G-forces created by the shockwave alone can affect bodies and organs, with the potential to result in bodily injuries which present several months or years down the road, rather than showing up immediately.

The difference is that the military has the advantage of installing the accelerometers directly on the soldier’s gear and can accurately measure the G-forces directly sustained by the person. The challenge in a car is that the air bags and the crumple zones work together to reduce the G-forces sustained by the occupants of the vehicle and so an accelerometer placed on the vehicle itself would not necessarily be indicative of the precise G-forces experienced by the occupants during the crash. However, new sensors could be placed in creative spots in the vehicle (such as the seatbelt strap) which could interface directly with the telematics devices discussed above in order to provide a much clearer picture of the amount of trauma sustained by the passenger during the crash. At the very least, even with telematics in its current state today, some of the low-speed, fraudulent claims could be disputed based on evidence gathered from new apps designed to provide a window not just into how the person is driving and how the crash took place, but into what types of forces the occupants’ bodies were actually subjected to during the accident.

This is something that is definitely on the horizon, and while there are too many variables in a vehicular crash to rely solely and completely on telematics information, it has been concretely proven that certain thresholds of G-force impact will result in a corresponding degree of bodily injury; consequently, it will not be long before the new generations of smart phone apps, combined with vehicle black boxes, are able to report data on potential for injury. As stated above, accidents with low to nil G-forces exerted on the occupant should, as general rule, result in limited to no strains or soft tissue injuries. However, as in the military example, it is also known that certain thresholds of G-forces can result in damage to the human body that is not immediately recognizable, and this will open an interesting new chapter in the management of personal injury claims.


1. Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine, January 2010; 54: 159-168, PMCID: PMC3242565.

About the Author

Sean has been active in the insurance claims handling space in various capacities since 1997 and was one of the pioneers of Canada’s first online claims management system launched in 1999. Sean has expertise in claims, claims process improvement, vendor programs, claims IT systems, and document management. He enjoys working with insurance companies to tie all of these components together with their various systems and processes in order to arrive at the ideal combination customized to an insurer’s own unique needs. Sean joined Benchmark IME in December of 2013 and is putting his experience, coupled with Benchmark’s advanced technological capabilities, to work to improve the AB claim workflow for insurers in Canada.

Sean can be reached at [email protected].

About Benchmark

Canadian-based, privately owned and operated by a Regulated Healthcare Practitioner, Benchmark is a national provider of Independent Medical Examinations.

Benchmark’s core competencies are the provision of IME through the development and use of our strategic proprietary technologies, all custom-designed to support quality in each step of our process driven workflow – this is what differentiates Benchmark.

Our revolutionary, paperless, efficient, and accurate processes have been validated through ISO 9001:2008 certification.

Source: Benchmark IME