Lying Black Boxes And The Truths They Tell

By John Carr, NMA Massachusetts Activist

Last November, Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray was out surveying storm damage when his car hit black ice on I-190 and slid off the road. It was just an accident. He was sober and obeying the speed limit and police agreed there was nothing he could have done.

Some were suspicious of this story. Why was he driving at night to look at storm damage?

Reporters asked for a copy of the “black box” data to check his story. A state owned car’s event recorder is legally a public record, open to public inspection. State police hate public records requests. They especially hated this one and refused to comply for two months. Finally, facing public pressure and an order from the Secretary of State the Lt. Governor relented and let police obey the law and release the data.

The black box data, rewritten-for-honesty police report, and crash photos tell a different story. (Coverage in Boston Globe, Boston Herald, WFXT, Telegram and Gazette; accident report (PDF) via T&G).

A male driver alone in the car was involved in a high speed single vehicle crash late at night. He passed out behind the wheel, went off the road at 108 mph, and hit a rock ledge. He was not wearing a seat belt. This crash fits a profile. It’s a classic drunk driving crash. From the photos you might think it was fatal. Police say he passed a breathalyzer. There is no record of such a test and in any case they would lie to cover up for him.

But it’s not that simple either.

First, the black box is wrong. It says the car accelerated from 93 to 108 mph in 1.6 seconds. A Crown Vic can’t do that. The computer measures wheel speed. A wheel was spinning free in the air or slipping on the snow-covered shoulder.

Police know about this problem. They bring it up to justify ignoring the speed reading when a police officer or important person wrecks a car. As an ordinary civilian you will be charged based on the black box data. You can hire an expert witness, at your own expense, to try to convince a skeptical jury that the computer lied.

He wasn’t driving 100 mph the whole trip. He may have been driving like a normal person, i.e. breaking the law without driving dangerously. The record of the last 30 seconds of his drive shows he started at 75 mph, 10 over the politically-imposed speed limit. I trust the steady speed reading. It is corroborated by the throttle position: little pressure on the gas pedal.

The recording says he accelerated to 93 mph in less than 15 seconds. I believe this too because the computer says he floored the gas pedal. We have two corroborating figures that are consistent with the car’s capability. Once his car hit snow at over 90 mph the speed reading became inaccurate.

Second, he probably did not pass out. Aside from the fact that he claimed to be wide awake when he started driving, sleeping drivers rarely if ever floor the gas pedal.  Maybe he hit the gas instead of the brake. Maybe he wanted to have some fun, put his foot to the floor, and lost control when he hit a slick spot at high speed.

After the black box data came out Murray hired a consultant to advise him how to answer continuing questions. Will “tell the truth” will be included in that advice? For what it’s worth, Telegram and Gazette has coverage of the resulting statement.

So what have we learned?

  • Black boxes can provide valuable data despite being fallible. We know what didn’t happen (cautious, law-abiding driver slipped on ice) even though we can’t prove beyond reasonable doubt what did happen (sleep, pedal misapplication, or reckless driving).
  • Politicians who support low speed limits are hypocrites who will break the law when they think they can get away with it. (We probably knew that already.)
  • You don’t need a seat belt to survive a 92 mph (or 108 mph) crash.

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