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Baldacci said to be wearing belt in crash, despite conflicting data

PORTLAND, Maine -- Officials maintained yesterday that Governor John Baldacci was wearing a seat belt when his sport utility vehicle crashed, even though computer data captured from the demolished SUV indicates that he wasn't buckled up.

The data indicated that the passenger seat belt was not buckled at impact. But Baldacci and Detective James Trask, the State Police driver, both say the governor's seat belt was buckled.

In a State Police report, Trask recalled unbuckling the seat belt of the slumped governor, who was having trouble breathing. A doctor also said Baldacci's injuries were consistent with wearing a seat belt.

"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," Public Safety Commissioner Michael Cantara wrote in a letter.

The seat belt discrepancy was contained in additional state police accident reports released by Cantara at the request of The Associated Press under the Maine Freedom of Access law. They included five seconds of data from the SUV's onboard computer recovered by a crash data retrieval system.

The system allows State Police investigators to retrieve data captured in many late-model vehicles by the air bag module, the "computer" that controls air bag deployment.

Investigators blamed Trask for causing the Feb. 4 collision by driving too fast for the slippery conditions. The SUV slid on ice while passing a car, causing both vehicles to spin off I-295 in Bowdoinham.

The governor's Suburban skidded 204 feet, turning 180 degrees and going off the pavement before hitting some trees and coming to rest on its side, according to the State Police accident reconstruction.

Both Trask and the governor suffered mild concussions. The governor also suffered a broken rib. The other motorist, Timothy Putnam of Richmond, did not sustain serious injuries.

The data showed that the SUV was traveling at 71 miles per hours about 5 seconds before the airbags deployed. Trask told State Police investigators that his speedometer showed 55 miles per hour before he began passing the car. A State Police accident reconstruction put the SUV's speed at 55 to 65 miles per hour.

Officials said the higher speed from the event data recorder could have been caused by slipping wheels, though the data showed that the accelerator was not depressed. The Suburban used by the governor was equipped with on-demand four-wheel-drive to reduce spinning, according to General Motors.

At the time, the interstate's speed limit had been reduced to 45 miles per hour because of slippery conditions. Trask, who was not charged, returned to work last Thursday and continues to drive the governor, officials said.

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