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Data box dilemma

Crash probes aided, but privacy issue raised

By ROBERT THARP Dallas Morning News

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

When trucker John Wilson Jr. jackknifed his tractor-trailer during a severe thunderstorm and caused an accident that killed two motorists, the wet highway left no skid marks as evidence.

Traffic investigators took the driver at his word when he said he was going 35 mph in the construction zone before veering off the road and into oncoming traffic.

Three years later, Wilson is facing negligent homicide charges after investigators found a silent witness with an impressive memory of what happened that night. A computer hooked up to the 18-wheeler saved key details about his driving in the seconds before the crash.

Most late-model vehicles have the ability to save information about vital functions such as speed, braking and seat belt use before a crash. These days, prosecutors, civil attorneys and insurance companies are increasingly seeking that data before they go to court or settle a claim.

Data downloaded in Wilson's case showed that the Peterbilt truck loaded with 44,000 pounds of lead ingots was traveling as fast as 63 mph less than a minute before the crash on U.S. Highway 80 in Mesquite, Texas, according to court records.

Wilson, 48, could not be reached for comment.

Common in future

David Snyder, vice president of the American Insurance Association, predicts that one day soon, data retrieval will be commonplace for sorting out blame even in minor accidents.

"Today, information is open to question because it relies heavily on eyewitnesses. This black-box data could cut through that," he said. "There's a lot of contradiction of eyewitnesses and interested parties."

Crash-data recovery systems, similar to the black boxes found in planes and trains, are the byproduct of increasingly sophisticated car design. Computers operate and monitor a car's electrical components. The ability to save the data is just an extension of that technology, said College Station, Texas, attorney Robert Waltman.

"In order for air bags to deploy, the vehicle had to be aware of what was going on with the vehicle," he said.

In use for a decade

Some GM cars have recorded crash data since the early 1990s, though automakers did not make that fact widely known, Waltman said. The ability to retrieve the files is only now becoming readily available and should improve once an industry standard is established.

Waltman, a plaintiff's attorney whose cases frequently involve faulty air bags, said he seeks out the crash data whenever possible. The information can confirm or cast doubt on eyewitness accounts and traditional accident reconstructions that are based on measurements and complex mathematical formulas.

Most data systems capture a vehicle's speed, engine RPM, throttle and brake activity, often in one-second intervals in the minutes leading up to a crash. The data can also document seat belt use and whether someone accidentally pressed the accelerator instead of the brake pedal.

In Wilson's case, the accident occurred in the evening during a spring 2000 storm with strong winds, heavy rain and poor visibility. The same storm system was blamed for a tornado that went though Fort Worth's central business district.

When the truck jackknifed, it crashed into three oncoming vehicles. Susan Dara Webb Clay, 43, died from injuries she suffered when her Mitsubishi pickup truck was struck. Alton R. Meister, 57, died several days later from injuries he sustained when Wilson's truck hit the 1998 Ford Windstar he was riding in. Two others were critically injured.

Attorneys for the crash victims and their families received the computer data from Wilson's trucking company during discovery as they prepared for a wrongful-death lawsuit. Attorney James Hryekewicz said the data was key to a $16 million settlement reached in 2001 with attorneys for Wilson and his employer, Indiana-based Smithway Motor Xpress.

Attorneys handed the information over to Mesquite police, who filed charges against Wilson.

His attorney, Hank Judin, said the trial would focus on much more than computer records. He noted that the construction zone had been the site of numerous accidents, especially involving tractor- trailers losing control on the steep grade in wet conditions.

Legal issues

The American Civil Liberties Union has called the crash-data recovery technology a "significant erosion of personal privacy" and suggested that car buyers be given the option of placing the computers in their vehicles.

Still unresolved is who can readily access the computer data. In California, a new law that takes effect in July prevents the data from being released without the registered owner's consent.

The law forbids indiscriminate access by police, such as during traffic stops, but would allow investigators to examine the data if they have enough probable cause to obtain a search warrant. The California law also requires automakers to explain the technology in vehicle owners' manuals.

Snyder of the American Insurance Association said there is a presumption that car owners will cooperate with insurance companies in settlement matters, including allowing access to the data.

"It's nothing out of the ordinary in terms of what customers are asked to do anyway," he said.

Dallas attorney Michael Linz, an ACLU litigator, said the crash- data recovery systems might one day create a cottage industry of businesses offering to disable the devices.

Private companies are also tweaking the technology to create new markets -- some models can be installed so parents can monitor their teenagers' driving habits.

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