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Ice may have caused Murray crash

Independent analysis of ‘black box’ backs original explanation

Murray said he accepts the police finding he fell asleep at the wheel. Murray said he accepts the police finding he fell asleep at the wheel.
By Scott Allen
Globe Staff / January 16, 2012
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An independent analysis of Timothy P. Murray’s high speed rollover accident suggests that the lieutenant governor did not fall asleep at the wheel as State Police have said, and that it is more likely he lost control on ice as Murray initially claimed, raising still more questions about the mysterious Nov. 2 incident.

Murray, who slammed his state-owned Crown Victoria into a rock ledge and rolled over twice during an early morning drive on Interstate 190 that reached speeds in excess of 90 miles per hour, has said he accepts the State Police finding that he fell asleep.

But veteran traffic safety researcher Jeffrey Muttart, who reviewed crash data from the vehicle’s “black box’’ at the Globe’s request, said Murray’s original account - that he had lost control due to icy conditions - may have been closer to the truth.

Muttart, a Connecticut-based researcher who teaches crash investigators at Northwestern University in Chicago, said Murray appears to have adjusted the steering wheel twice as the 14-second accident unfolded, suggesting he was trying to steer as the vehicle went out of control. Also, the speed of the spinning wheels increased rapidly even though Murray was not pressing the accelerator, suggesting that he had hit a patch of ice.

“It is highly unlikely that anyone would be sleeping,’’ wrote Muttart along with coauthor Jon Northrup in their 10-page analysis. Muttart added that Murray could have been sleepy before the accident, though “only the Lieutenant Governor knows for sure.’’

State Police said that they stand by their finding that Murray fell asleep and that they don’t have the time or resources to reinvestigate nonfatal accidents.

“Since the day the lieutenant governor crashed, we have investigated 16 fatal crashes on state roads - two of them double fatalities,’’ said State Police spokesman David Procopio. “But it is the lieutenant governor’s crash that so dominates the public discourse. Something’s wrong about that.’’

Muttart said Murray’s 5:26 a.m. crash - in which an unbuckled Murray bounced around inside the careening 2007 auto, knocking it into neutral gear - must have been frightening. But Murray emerged with only minor cuts on his hand and immediately requested a sobriety test to show that he was not drunk.

“If I were his parent, I would still not be sleeping well just thinking how close he came,’’ said Muttart, a former police officer who has done traffic safety research for the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Though Murray was physically unharmed, his shifting explanations for the crash have damaged him politically, prompting him to hire a crisis communications consultant this week. He first claimed that he was surveying damage from a late fall snowstorm - though it was dark - and that he was looking for coffee and a newspaper even though the crash site in Sterling is 18 miles from his home. Later, Murray said he could not sleep and went out for a drive to clear his head.

Likewise, Murray initially said he was driving the speed limit and wearing his seat belt when he lost control of the vehicle on black ice. But State Police drew strikingly different conclusions when they reviewed data about the vehicle’s speed, brakes, and other details in the on-board powertrain control module, a simple version of a plane’s “black box’’ recorder.

Police concluded that Murray was not wearing a seat belt and was driving 75 miles per hour before accelerating to 108 miles per hour, and they suggested he fell asleep and hit the gas.

“The State Police have said that this is consistent with what happens when someone falls asleep at the wheel and I believe that is what caused my accident,’’ said Murray at a Jan. 3 press conference.

However, Murray also has said he has no recollection of falling asleep.

While stressing that his findings are based only on publicly available information,Muttart said there are several indications that Murray was trying to maintain control of the vehicle during the crash. He said the vehicle changed direction twice as it went off the road, suggesting Murray was turning the wheel, and he tapped the brake once.

“The lieutenant governor was apparently attempting to steer his way out of the situation he placed himself in,’’ wrote Muttart and Northrup.

Muttart added that, at one point, the Crown Victoria accelerated more rapidly than the 2007 model’s engine is capable of, probably because the wheels were spinning on ice. He said Murray did not deliberately speed up to 108 miles an hour, the maximum speed recorded.

“The lieutenant governor initially claimed that he lost control on black ice. Here, we have to state that the evidence supports the lieutenant governor,’’ Muttart and Northrup wrote.

Murray indicated last week that he would stand by the theory that he fell asleep.

“Lieutenant Governor Murray has accepted the findings of the Massachusetts State Police and has taken full responsibility for the accident,’’ said spokeswoman Lauren E. Jones in a statement. “He is glad no one was hurt and is focused on his work on behalf of Massachusetts residents.’’

Sean P. Murphy and Noah Bierman of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Scott Allen can be reached at allen@globe.com.

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