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Michelle Obama speaks out on schoolgirl abductions

WASHINGTON — In a rare venture into foreign policy, Michelle Obama on Saturday condemned the abduction of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls by terrorists and said that she and President Barack Obama had been personally touched by what she called an “unconscionable” act.

“In these girls, Barack and I see our own daughters,” the first lady said in the weekly radio address that is normally delivered by her husband. “We see their hopes, their dreams — and we can only imagine the anguish their parents are feeling right now.”

Boko Haram, the Nigerian terrorist network, has claimed responsibility for abducting 276 girls from a school last month. The taking of the girls and concern about their fate has prompted nations around the world to offer help to the Nigerian government of President Goodluck Jonathan.

Barack Obama said last week that he had ordered a team of military intelligence specialists and hostage negotiators to Nigeria to help in the search.

The kidnapping of the girls has prompted a viral Internet campaign on their behalf, with people around the world taking to Twitter and other social media to demand the return of the girls to their families. The first lady posted a somber-looking picture of herself on Twitter, holding a piece of paper with “#BringBackOurGirls” written on it.

In the radio address, she said she wanted to use Mother’s Day to draw even more attention to the kidnappings.

“Like millions of people across the globe, my husband and I are outraged and heartbroken over the kidnapping of more than 200 Nigerian girls from their school dormitory in the middle of the night,” she said. “This unconscionable act was committed by a terrorist group determined to keep these girls from getting an education — grown men attempting to snuff out the aspirations of young girls.”

Michelle Obama has typically stayed away from foreign policy issues and has focused most of her official activities as first lady on issues like reducing childhood obesity and programs to help support members of the armed services and their families. She recently toured China without her husband and used the trip to offer some political messages about free expression and minority rights.

The first lady said Saturday that the abduction of the girls in Nigeria was not an isolated case of terrorism but part of a pattern of abuse directed at girls across the globe.

—Michael D. Shear, The New York Times

Experts seek smarter black boxes for cars and trucks

A design flaw in the Chevrolet Cobalt and other small cars has led to deaths and injuries for at least a decade, but the analysts at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration never opened an investigation. All through that period, a few blocks away at a sister agency within the Transportation Department, safety experts were using a program that made extensive use of vehicle data to spot defects and dangerous trends.

None of those vehicles were on the roads, though. They were airliners, and the agency was the Federal Aviation Administration. Now, experts are wondering if some of its techniques can be adapted for highway use, and the black boxes in cars can be put to use as the ones in planes have.

“The more data we have, and the more people thinking about it, the more of these problems we’re going to catch,” said David E. Cole, chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Unraveling a problem like the Cobalt’s, with a faulty ignition switch that tended to turn off the engine and disable the air bags, is hard, Cole said, so “we’ve got to do a full press on whatever we have that can help us to get to that story more quickly.”

The crash recorders in cars are not nearly as sophisticated as the ones in planes, and they do not store any data unless there is an impact. But looked at as a group, they could give important insights, safety specialists say. The government and automakers already maintain several large databases aimed at identifying problematic vehicles, including warranty claims and consumer complaints, and the black box data could complement those, experts say.

But often, the black boxes are not examined at all.

David M. Hallman, a crash investigator based in Maple Grove, Minnesota, said that “even if it’s a serious or a fatal, a lot of times the box doesn’t get read.”

Nearly all new cars have black boxes, known as event data recorders, and the government has standardized some of the technical details of their operation. Soon they will be required in new cars.

But with their main role to establish fault or guilt in a crash, they also have raised privacy questions. Some states have rushed to set up rules, which are now a hodgepodge.

They have strong safety potential, experts say. Adrian K. Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the industry group that crash-tests new cars, said that “event data recorders could definitely help.”

“If these things had been standard and they were being utilized a lot, we probably would have been able to prove this a little faster,” Lund said, although he and others cautioned that the Cobalt flaw played a role in only a small number of fatal crashes, so spotting a pattern was not a certainty.

Planes are easier. Big airliners are equipped with a device that copies the information that goes into the flight data recorder, in a format that allows easy download after ordinary flights. Analysts aggregate information from thousands of flights and look for indications of latent problems, like extreme maneuvers, even if they did not cause death or injury.

In cars, the black box captures much less data and none for ordinary trips.

But if there is a crash, some will give an indication of whether the engine was running at the time — the tip-off in Cobalts. The catch is that even in cases of death or injury, the boxes are generally not downloaded, unless there is a need to establish who was at fault. And even then, the data is usually not aggregated in a way that makes an analysis possible across multiple models of car.

—Matthew L. Wald, The New York Times