August 7, 2013

Bill Nemitz: Speeding? It's your word against your car's

By Bill Nemitz bnemitz@pressherald.com
Columnist

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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