NMA Black Boxes Fact Sheet ( PDF )
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On a cold and icy Maine day, Governor John Baldacci was traveling on I-295, near Bowdoinham, in his state-owned Chevrolet Suburban. State Police Detective James Trask was behind the wheel when the SUV hit a patch of ice while in the process of passing a slower-moving car. Both the Suburban and the car spun off the interstate. The governor’s vehicle skidded 204 feet, turned 180 degrees, hit several trees, and eventually came to rest on its side.

Both Trask and Baldacci suffered mild concussions, and the governor also had a broken rib. The driver of the other car escaped without any serious injuries.

The real story here is not the accident itself, but rather the investigation that followed.

The governor’s Suburban, like most other GM-produced vehicles, was equipped with a “Sensing and Diagnostic Module,” a data recorder commonly referred to as a “black box.” These devices record both pre- and post-accident data in the event the airbag is deployed, such as speed, brake status, and whether or not the driver or passenger was wearing a seatbelt.

Law enforcement, insurance adjusters, and car rental agencies are increasingly using this type of data against the motorists.

However, in the case of the accident involving Baldacci’s Suburban, law enforcement did not clamor to lay blame on the driver of the vehicle. In fact, the exact opposite happened; the State Police, along with the governor’s office, both disputed data collected by the Suburban’s “black box.”

Of course, a cynic might say that this is only because the driver in this case, Trask, was one of their own. Regardless, the case has drawn into question the reliability of automobile data recorders.

The “black box” recorded that the SUV was traveling at 71 mph about five seconds before its airbags deployed. Trask told investigators that his speedometer showed 55 mph before he began passing the car.

A State Police accident reconstruction also differed from the data recorder’s information, estimating the SUV’s speed at somewhere between 55 and 65 mph. All estimates still place the Suburban’s speed over that stretch of interstate’s speed limit, which had been reduced to 45 mph because of wintry conditions.

State officials claim the Suburban’s wheels spinning on the ice could have caused the higher speed that was recorded. General Motors stated, however, that the governor’s SUV came complete with on-demand four-wheel-drive in order to reduce wheel spin, which makes the official explanation of the vehicle’s speed put forth by the State Police more difficult to believe.

In any event, Trask has not been charged with speeding in relation to the incident, and continued to serve as the governor’s driver.

The Suburban’s speed is not the only point of contention in regard to the accident. Questions also arose as to whether or not Governor Baldacci was wearing his seatbelt when the SUV skidded off the road.

The onboard recorder indicated the governor was not buckled in, but a spokesperson for the governor disputes the data and maintains that Baldacci was definitely wearing his seat belt when his SUV crashed. Trask, the driver of the vehicle, supports Baldacci’s claims and told the press that he remembers unbuckling the injured governor’s belt.

Furthermore, medical staff who treated the governor at a nearby hospital has stated that the governor’s injuries were consistent with being belted during an accident.

Maine’s Public Safety Commissioner, Michael Cantara, concurred. In regard to the governor’s accident he wrote, “the clear and convincing physical evidence and the interviews of the involved parties were sufficient to satisfy the questions raised by the conflicting data and it is the State Police conclusion that Governor Baldacci had his seat belt buckled.”

So, it would appear, the data recorder was wrong not once, but twice.

The reality of what happened on I-295 on that evening back in February will never be fully known. The incident, however, does raise serious questions about the credibility of the data collected by “black boxes.”

This revelation comes at a time when data recording technology in automobiles is becoming increasingly common, and has been key in the recent convictions of motorists involved in accidents both in the United States and Canada.

Data recorders were initially included in vehicles with the promise that they would increase safety, although precisely how these devices do that is unclear. What is clear is that “black boxes” are in fact making driving much more hazardous, as law enforcement agencies continue to use the data collected by these devices to convict people for offenses ranging from reckless driving to vehicular manslaughter.

The question of Trooper Trask’s speed and Governor Baldacci’s seat belt goes directly to the root of whether or not these data recorders are even being trustworthy. One would hope that at least the Maine State Police will hesitate to take the information provided by a “black box” as full-proof evidence from now on.