Estimated speed, when it comes to a serious automobile crash, can often be in the eye of the beholder.

Take last week’s horrific accident in which a four-time drunken-driving offender, David Labonte, 56, of Kennebunkport, plowed his pickup truck through a family of bicyclists and then smashed into a parked pickup on Route 1 in Biddeford.

“He was doing highway speed (55 mph) for sure,” asserted Victor Dorais, who saw the accident. “To push (the other truck) as far as he did, he must have been.”

It was an understandable reaction to a traumatic event the likes of which Dorais, by his own admission, had never seen. But police, using footage from a nearby pizza shop’s surveillance camera, later estimated the speed to be between 30 and 35 mph, well within the 35-mph speed limit for that stretch of road.

So who’s right?

Let’s go to the “black box.”

“It’s just a tool to verify information,” said Biddeford Police Chief Roger Beaupre in an interview Tuesday. “Every reconstruction of an accident we do, we get the search warrant and go and get the information.”

Say what? You thought “black boxes” were for planes and trains, but not automobiles?

You thought wrong.

According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, 40 million of the estimated 250 million cars on U.S. roads have “event data recorders” nestled into the circuitry that makes “under the hood” a place most of us dare not venture without professional help.

Most of those vehicles are relatively new; the safety administration estimates that 96 percent of the 2013 models sold in this country came equipped with so-called EDRs. But others have been around for years. General Motors, for example, began installing the devices primarily for safety research as far back as the early 1990s.

What’s more, the number of recorders will almost certainly increase: The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, which until now has let car manufacturers decide whether to install them, plans to make recorders mandatory on all new vehicles starting in 2014.

Meaning that sooner or later, what you claim happened just before you hit that telephone pole (or worse) will be verifiable (or not) with that little tell-all box you probably didn’t even know existed.

A box that, upon impact, can save everything from your vehicle and engine speed to your steering angle, throttle position, braking status, air bag deployment and, last but by no means least, whether you were wearing your seat belt.

Labonte’s Ford F-150 pickup had a “black box” (which, for the record, is actually silver). According to Chief Beaupre, it’s now being analyzed by the Maine State Police Crash Reconstruction Unit, in one of 26 such data downloads the specially trained officers have done for Maine law enforcement agencies so far this year.

Enter the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based consumer group that worries that this kind of detective work may represent yet another government intrusion into what is, or should be, private information.

“These cars are equipped with computers that collect massive amounts of data,” said Khaliah Barnes, the center’s administrative law counsel, in a recent interview with The New York Times. “Without protections, it can lead to all kinds of abuse.”

Which brings us to the good news: Maine is one of 14 states with protections.

A little history …

Back in February of 2004, Gov. John Baldacci and his driver were involved in a nasty rollover accident on an icy stretch of Interstate 295 in Bowdoinham. The governor’s 2004 Chevrolet Suburban had an event data recorder, which indicated the vehicle was traveling at 71 mph and Baldacci was not wearing his seat belt.

State Police investigators, however, later estimated the speed at between 55 and 65 mph (still above the weather-reduced, 45-mph speed limit), speculating that the tires spinning on the slippery surface produced a false higher reading.

And Baldacci, who sustained a mild concussion, a broken rib and various bumps and bruises, insisted he was in fact wearing his seat belt.

Contacted Tuesday, Baldacci said he nevertheless supports use of the recorders — to a point.

“I think more information is good,” Baldacci said. “But at the same time, each circumstance is unique and there will be factors that play into whether (EDRs) are as accurate as they need to be.”

(Baldacci isn’t the only high-ranking official who’s found himself at odds with his automobile: In 2011, Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray told police he was wearing his seat belt and wasn’t speeding when he crashed his state-owned Ford Crown Victoria. But the recorder had him exceeding 100 mph with no seat belt, prompting the state to slap Murray with a $555 fine.)

A year after Baldacci’s mishap, the Maine Legislature passed a law designating an event data recorder the property of only the vehicle owner, thus limiting who can have access to the data without that owner’s consent.

At the same time, however, the statute stipulated that the owner’s rights are trumped by a court order (as in Chief Beaupre’s latest search warrant), by a law enforcement officer acting in his or her official capacity, or if “the data are requested as part of a routine civil or criminal discovery.”

Translation: When crunch time comes, the best testimony on your driving may not come from you or the guy who claims to have seen the whole thing. It could come from your own car.

James Harris, owner of Harris Technical Services, has spent the last 22 years studying, consulting and testifying on event data recorders and the related science behind accident reconstruction. Contacted on Tuesday at his Florida headquarters, he said data from the devices is showing up with increased frequency in courts all over the country.

“There’s nothing unusual or strange about them,” said Harris. “They are technical components built into cars (that) work as well as any automotive system works.”

In other words, Harris said, as long as what’s on the recorder is reasonably consistent with the apparent damage to the vehicle, it’s something that’s likely to be used more and more in the future to determine who’s telling the truth and who isn’t.

That may well be good news for David Labonte — at least when it comes to how fast he was driving on Friday.

But what about all those drivers out there unaware that when they least expect it, what their car says can and will be used against them?

“The genie’s out of the bottle,” Harris replied. “Get used to it.”

Even better, just slow down.

 

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@pressherald.com