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If you've bought a new car in the past half-dozen years, there's a good chance it has a "black box" that activates if you brake suddenly, swerve off the road or hit something hard enough to make the airbags deploy. Auto industry insiders say most drivers don't know event data recorders exist or how pervasive they are in newer vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is on the verge of making black boxes mandatory in all new cars, light trucks and SUVs, although it appears the federal agency will miss a previously announced September 1, 2014 deadline for switching on the new rule.

The black box is formally known as an event data recorder (EDR), and today it's in 96 percent of new cars sold in the United States, according to industry estimates. States are passing their own laws stipulating what automakers must disclose about the devices, who sees the information they generate and under what circumstances.

for 33 years, including a stint evaluating event data recorders and other safety equipment.

"It's not going to change whether or not you're going to buy the car." Most event data recorders are programmed to record data in a continuous loop, writing over information again and again until a vehicle is in a front-end collision or other crash.

Finally, black boxes could play a significant role in lawsuits pending against GM over cars with defective ignition switches that contributed to fatal crashes.