Drivers today don't make a move without receiving instruction from their GPS. Kids communicate face-to-face using iChat on their laptops. Nobody leaves home without a BlackBerry. We read books on the Kindle, watch movies in the car, and buy music from our cell phones.

So why did hundreds of investigators spend much of the week combing the Atlantic Ocean for Air France Flight 447's black box - a 30-minute audio recording and data set detailing items such as the aircraft's altitude and airspeed?

The search to locate the signal of a four-inch "pinger" attached to the black box will cost millions. And even when that signal is located, it will still take remote-controlled submarine drones with electronic arms to physically locate it and bring it to the surface.

And for what? The equivalent of a cassette tape in the age of the iPod.

There's a chance that information won't reveal what caused Flight 447 to go down. All of which raises the question: Why aren't commercial planes streaming cockpit video to airlines in real time?

According to Arthur Wolk, the nation's preeminent aviation expert and lawyer, the technological capability is there, but the support of the union that represents U.S. pilots isn't.

"The problem is the pilots unions have objected to that because they say that then the companies will be looking over the pilots' shoulders to make sure that they haven't exceeded any of the airplanes' capabilities," he said.

"To me, it makes common sense that we need to get rid of those old bugaboos and we need to start having real-time transmission of both flight data and cockpit voice."

The National Transportation Safety Board began advocating in earnest for cockpit video recordings in 1999, after the crash of EgyptAir 990. Traveling from New York to Cairo, Flight 990 crashed 60 miles south of Nantucket Island. The NTSB led the U.S. investigation and concluded in March 2002 that the crash occurred "as a result of the relief first officer's (RFO) flight control inputs." Experts consulting for the Egyptian effort, meanwhile, put forth a series of mechanical failures they believed had felled the aircraft.

The plane's flight data recorder revealed that the autopilot was turned off - as were both engines - when the plane went down. The cockpit voice recorder, meanwhile, caught the RFO rhythmically repeating the phrase "I rely on God" almost a dozen times as the captain returned from a bathroom break demanding, "What's happening?" A video, the NTSB argued, would have gone a long way toward detailing exactly what occurred.

By April 2000, the NTSB was advocating for cockpit video recorders on the basis that the mystery of Flight 990 - along with several other ill-fated flights - could have been definitively solved if video evidence accompanied the voice and data instruments. The Air Line Pilots Association, meanwhile, voiced concerns about the privacy of the pilots, whose every move would be recorded if those cameras were installed.

A white paper posted on the pilots union's Web site ("Investigating Airline Accidents: Cockpit Video is Not the Answer") expands on that argument. Digital flight data recorders and cockpit voice recordings, the paper reads, "already [provide] investigators with the tools they need to determine the causes of airline accidents." Video recordings, on the other hand, are "imprecise" and could "actually lead investigators down the wrong path," the paper continues.

But we need look no further than the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to know how valuable cockpit image recordings could be when combined with the video and data recordings every plane already produces.

The black boxes from American Airlines Flight 11 and United Flight 175, which hit the twin towers, were never recovered. The voice recorder from American Flight 77, which pierced the Pentagon, was too damaged to yield any useful information.

And while we've heard the audio recording of the moments leading up to United Flight 93's crash in Shanksville, nobody knows for sure what actually happened between 9:58 a.m., when the passengers launched their counterattack, and 10:03 a.m., when the plane hit the ground at more than 500 m.p.h.

Flight image recording would also make possible instant safety audits of flight crews and aircraft "before it's too late," Wolk told me.

"The bottom line of the story is this," he said, "safety is no accident. You really have to work very hard at making the system perfect. Here you have a system that could easily be made perfect, and we're not doing it."

He's right. In the meantime, the families of passengers and crew aboard Flight 447 sit idly, waiting as investigators comb an area hundreds of miles off the coast of Brazil - in waters thousands of feet deep - looking for two small black boxes.

Michael Smerconish's column appears Thursdays in the Philadelphia Daily News and Sundays in Currents. He can be heard from 5 to 9 a.m. weekdays on "The Big Talker," WPHT-AM (1210). Contact him via www.mastalk.com.