Under media pressure to reveal more about his unusual Nov. 2 car crash, Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray today asked the Massachusetts State Police to release the “black box” information from his totaled automobile.
The State Police—which owned the unmarked cruiser and also investigated the crash—had been been unwilling to retrieve the information earlier, saying its investigators were already loaded with more serious cases and the cause had been determined: icy road conditions.
But lingering questions about the unusual circumstances and time of the crash, the distance it occurred from Murray’s home, as well as the extensive damage to the cruiser, prompted follow-up requests for the black box data.
“As an elected official, I am rightfully held to a higher standard and I believe you can make the information public in this instance without threatening your standard procedures for all other accident investigations,” Murray wrote in a letter to State Police Colonel Marian McGovern, the department’s top official.
State Police said the “box” actually is two electronic modules, a Power Control Module (PCM) and an Airbag Control Module (ACM). The PCM is connected to the vehicle’s power train and records related data. The ACM is connected to the airbags.
“The PCM and ACM are designed to, once triggered, capture data such as velocity, throttle position, and brake deployment.
“The triggers are, for the PCM, a sudden decrease in velocity of the car, and for the ACM, deployment of the air bags,” the department said.
Upon those triggers, the modules preserve data collected during the previous 20 seconds and for the next five seconds, for a total of 25 seconds of crash data.
The units do not record GPS coordinates which might have made it possible to track Murray’s pre-crash movements.
State Police spokesman David Procopio said during a Nov. 18 interview with the Globe that the black box could show that Murray was traveling over the posted speed limit, but that would not necessarily mean he was speeding at the time.
Procopio said the spinning of wheels on ice or in a rollover – both conditions present in the Murray crash – could trigger misleading results.
“The important thing to note, the readings have to be viewed in the context of the crash,” Procopio told the Globe. “They sort of marry the data from the black box with their observations from the scene, what the witnesses tell them.”
Both the Globe and the Boston Herald had requested the black box data, with the Herald filing an appeal of the State Police denial with Secretary of State William F. Galvin. A response from the State Police was due next week.
Galvin’s office requested the information be made public, and today Murray added his voice in his letter to McGovern.
The lieutenant governor told McGovern that while he would like the black box data to be retrieved and released, he does “not want to set a precedent where the Massachusetts State Police investigations of accidents are subject to any outside influence.”
Nonetheless, he said his job triggered atypical public interest in the crash.
Procopio said today the department would comply with the request but estimates it will take seven to 10 days to retrieve the data, given the holiday season and a series of recent fatal and serious accidents.
“Those remain a priority,” the spokesman said.
The Massachusetts Republican Party politicized the issue, accusing Murray of dumping the news amid the distractions of the holiday season.
“It seems fairly evident that Tim Murray has something to hide. After stonewalling for nearly six weeks, he waits until right before Christmas to do what he should have done a long time ago, which is release the data. The taxpayers of Massachusetts who are on the hook for this car deserve to know what happened that night,” said GOP spokesman Tim Buckley.
Murray, 43, was assigned the unmarked, 2007 Ford Crown Victoria as part of his job as the state’s No. 2 executive.
Both Murray and Governor Deval Patrick are supplied full-time State Police drivers, but they also, on occasion, drive themselves for errands. Murray’s crash occurred about two hours before his trooper was scheduled to pick him up for the day’s activities.
Murray said he was observing the posted 65 miles-per-hour speed limit when his car began to slide on a stretch of Interstate 190 in Sterling. It ended up going off the roadway, across a 525-foot stretch of the shoulder and into a rock ledge, while rolling over twice.
The vehicle—purchased for about $35,000 and valued at $9,000 at the time of the crash—was totaled in the accident, which State Police blamed on black ice. There were no injuries.
Responding troopers did not issue Murray any citations, noting one trooper nearly fell on ice while exiting his vehicle while another car was involved in an ice-related crash while they investigated Murray’s.
The lieutenant governor told reporters the morning of the crash that he had left his Worcester home before 5 a.m. to avoid waking his wife and two daughters.
He said he then drove about 30 miles—in the pitch black—to survey damage from an early snowstorm, as well as to fetch coffee and newspapers.
He asked for and passed a test aimed at determining whether he was under the influence of alcohol at the time.
Murray’s request today, and the State Police’s decision to acquiesce to it, reverse their positions from a month ago.
The lieutenant governor took a hands-off approach to the investigation, even after questions about releasing the black-box contents were raised. He said it was up to the State Police to determine how to best handle the accident investigation.
The State Police, meanwhile, were emphatic in their refusal to examine the black box or release its content.
A spokesman argued the cause had been determined – ice on the roadway – and removing or downloading the box, and then examining the contents, was a waste of valuable accident-investigation resources.
“There was no reason to respond a collision reconstruction team, and, likewise, there was no reason to access the data in the black box,” Procopio, the department spokesman, told the Globe during a Nov. 15 interview. “We would not do it in any other crash no matter who the driver is.”
He said the department’s 22 accident reconstructionists carry an average caseload of 10 active investigations, involving crashes where people have been killed or seriously injured. Murray walked away from his crash with a Band-aid on one hand as the only outward sign of an injury.
Procopio also told the Globe the State Police would not reverse course even if Murray requested it.
“We still would not do it,” Procopio said on Nov. 15. “We have 22 people in that unit who are investigating crashes where someone didn’t come home or was severely injured. Those folks are stretched and we are not going to devote their resources to a case where we know the cause of the crash.”
Today, Procopio said even after State Police investigators reach their conclusions, the department—if requested—will release the raw data for analysis by independent investigators.