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Automobile 'black box' on the road to success

Three months after a pickup truck allegedly ran a stop sign at a Severn intersection and hit his car, Joel Smith Jr. still doesn't remember all the events leading up to the crash that killed his 17-year-old sister, Laura.

But even if his memory never fully returns, the 2003 Chevrolet Cavalier he was driving June 7 may be able to speak for him.

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It was equipped with the automotive industry's version of a "black box," which recorded everything from vehicle speed to braking to seat belt use in the car.

"It gives a voice," said Robert A. Siegel, a Glen Burnie lawyer who has been retained by Smith's family. "It can help piece together the puzzle when nobody would be able to speak."

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In the world of accident reconstruction and safety analysis, the automobile "black box," a small silver-colored device located under seats or in the center console, has emerged in recent years as a valued technical resource, albeit one with limitations.

Little-known to the average driver, the technology, which dates to the advent of air bags more than a quarter-century ago, has become increasingly sophisticated over the years. These days, it can provide a snapshot of the last, precious seconds before two vehicles collide.

And while use of the technology may still be in its infancy, investigators, lawyers and insurance companies are beginning to realize its role in civil and criminal cases, proving fault or disproving fraudulent claims.

"I make it my business to always look for it," said Don Slavik, a Milwaukee lawyer and engineer who has either used or sought out the technology in more than 50 cases. He called the devices "the eyewitness that requires interpretation."

An untested resource

Still, it remains a largely untapped and untested resource, experts and traffic investigators say. Only General Motors and, to a much lesser extent, Ford have the technology and make it publicly available for downloading and analysis.

"I think it's going to be useful one day, but right now, it's just coming into its own," said Baltimore police Sgt. Dean Brightbill, a reconstructionist and supervisor in the accident investigations unit. The city owns two data retrieval systems and has one officer trained to do the work. "It's a big problem because it's not standardized."

It has also raised concerns from privacy advocates, who say they are concerned that motorists are largely unaware that their driving data are being recorded. But industry officials and others say the information belongs to the vehicle owner, a situation that affords all the usual legal protections. And a GM spokesman said the company is planning to make information about the technology easier to find in new car owner's manuals.

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Standards debated

While there are no set standards for the collection and retrieval of the data, industry experts nationwide are talking about how best to do both. The data, experts say, can be valuable as automakers and government agencies look for ways to make cars and driving safer.

"This is the second century of automobiles, so it's about time we get some good data," said Tom Kowalick, a co-chairman of an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers effort to standardize the data.

And accident reconstruction is an inexact science, said Ricardo Martinez, the former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and a proponent of standardizing the data.

"We're talking about just beginning to capture what's there," said Martinez, chief executive officer of Safety Intelligence Systems, a company he said is interested in improving the "quality" of crash information. "We really have an opportunity to go from the Dark Ages to seeing the light."

The downloads are easy, crash reconstructionists say, once an agency or investigator buys the $2,495 software kit from Vetronix Corp. of Santa Barbara, Calif. The company contracted with GM a few years ago and Ford more recently to develop a retrieval system for the data. Vetronix also trains people to use the kit.

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Plugging into the system in GM cars from the 1994 model year forward will reward an investigator with concise charts and graphs that show speed, brake activation, throttle use, changes in velocity and seat belt use in the five seconds before a crash. Beginning with the 2001 model year, Ford cars with the technology offer more limited information about the crash.

"This data is just physically what happens in the car," said Vetronix spokesman Jason Alexander. "It has no point of view. It has no agenda."

While other automakers have shown interest in retrieval systems, "right now, it's just GM and Ford," he said.

Unlike airplane black boxes, which record cockpit voices and data throughout the flight and store large amounts of information, the vehicle data recording capabilities are much more limited, experts say. The recorders, contained in the "brains" of a vehicle's air bag system, "wake up" only when conditions arise that might require air bags to deploy, according to investigators and industry officials.

Another 'eyewitness'

But experts and accident investigators say the data recorder can act as another "eyewitness" to a crash, filling in gaps, backing up their investigations and confirming witness accounts of speed, braking, acceleration and seat belt use.

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"It's a great tool for us because it can act to validate ... what you already know, and in some cases may be able to get you data you weren't able to get otherwise," said Anne Arundel police accident reconstructionist C. Gregory Russell, who was involved in the Smith case and recently started a side business, Accident Analysis and Reconstruction Inc., with Montgomery County police Detective Lenny Simpson.

In one crash, Russell said, information about brake and accelerator use showed that a driver had his feet on both the brake and accelerator pedals at the same time - evidence he tried to avoid a collision.

Still, he cautioned, the data recorder is no substitute for the nuts and bolts of accident reconstruction.

And, as a Montgomery County prosecution headed for trial this fall illustrates, it remains a largely untested piece of evidence.

In that case, investigators used data from recorders in both GM vehicles - a GMC pickup and Saturn sedan - to figure out how fast the vehicles were going a few seconds before a Christmas Eve crash on a wintry Norwood roadway, killing 49-year-old Neris Roldan of Silver Spring.

With snowy conditions obliterating any chance of skid marks that could help calculate speed, the investigators relied on the recorders to show that one driver was traveling at more than 30 mph above the posted speed limit, according to court documents. Keith Lenard Lee, 36, has been charged with manslaughter and leaving the scene of a fatal car crash.

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Lee's public defender recently filed a motion arguing that the technology is an untested "scientific technique" and therefore should not be admitted at trial.

Montgomery County State's Attorney Douglas F. Gansler, one of two prosecutors trying the case, disagrees.

"Once you have this evidence, it's akin to having at least part of the evidence caught on videotape or video recorder," Gansler said.

Some success

Although the data - and their use - have been limited, lawyers nationwide have had success with information provided by black boxes.

When a drunken Pembroke Pines, Fla., man slammed his 2002 Pontiac into a car, killing two teen-age girls, Florida prosecutors used the data recorder from his car to show he was driving more than 100 mph right before the crash. Edwin Matos was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 30 years in prison a few months ago.

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And black box data helped an Illinois police officer injured during an accident involving a hearse win a $10 million settlement in the spring.

Investigators say they've found the technology useful, if limited.

"It's amazing how much information it gives you," said Baltimore police Officer William Phelps, the only city officer trained to download the information. "It's worth its weight in gold."

Police departments such as Baltimore's also expect that the technology will come in handy as reconstructionists look into the causes of serious officer-involved crashes, he said. The city's patrol fleet largely consists of Ford Crown Victorias.

And attorneys who have used black box information in litigation or are researching its use say it holds great promise.

William E. Erskine, whose law firm represents the victims of the Severn accident in June, figures that "within the next 10 years" the technology will be widespread.

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"In the future," he said, "I think it'll answer a lot of questions about what happened."


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