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Pa. car accident case involving data recorder could set precedent

Whenever an airplane crashes, investigators rely on its flight data recorder, usually called a "black box," to tell them about any air safety issues or mechanical problems the plane might have experienced in the moments before the crash. Many cars are now equipped with data recorders as well, which can be helpful in determining what caused a car accident. The data can include a vehicle's speed, braking activity, turn signal use and even seatbelt use.

Perhaps surprisingly, the information collected from automobile data recorders is still not often used in determining fault in an accident between two or more cars. At least that's the case in Pennsylvania, where a criminal case against a driver involved in a fatal accident has been put on hold.

The driver is a 21-year-old Upper St. Clair, Pennsylvania, man who faces 11 charges in a crash that killed his three passengers. Prosecutors say the man was speeding when he lost control and hit a barrier. The car went over a snow pile along the guardrail on the right side of the road, flew 40 feet and rolled several times as it went down an embankment. The prosecutors argued that the car's data recorder, which records speeds and engine activity for the five-second period before the air bags deploy, showed the driver was going 106 mph before it crashed.

But the defendant's attorney said the car was going airborne and spinning its tires, and could have been going less than the 50 mph posted speed limit. And black ice may have caused him to lose control, rather than excessive speed.

The judge delayed the verdict, saying he wants more information on the car's data recorder. He'll reopen the case later this month for both sides to present expert testimony about the recorder's readings and reliability. "I can find no Pennsylvania case law which permits this use, which in and of itself does not make it inadmissible," the judge said. "Are they reliable? Are they accurate? Do they require calibration?"

The judge's ruling on the data recorder may determine the outcome of this case, as well as any wrongful death lawsuits the victims' families might file against the driver in the future. It could also set a precedent for future cases involving vehicle data recorders across the state.

Source: Pittsburgh Tribune Review, "Ruling delayed in fatal Parkway West wreck," Bobby Kerlik, Feb. 9, 2012

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