Lieutenant Governor Timothy P. Murray may have fallen asleep at the wheel when his state-owned vehicle careered off the road at more than 100 miles per hour and hit a stone wall two months ago, according to a State Police investigation of the car’s “black box’’ data released yesterday.
State Police said the vehicle’s sudden acceleration from 75 miles per hour to 108, without the brakes being applied, is consistent with sleep-related crashes, though they cannot say with certainty what caused Murray’s accident.
The new findings contradict investigators’ earlier conclusions that the Nov. 2 car crash was the result of black ice.
The black box data - released under pressure from reporters and Secretary of State William F. Galvin’s office - also refute Murray’s prior assertions that he was wearing his seat belt and was following the 65-mile-per-hour speed limit before he lost control of his car at 5:26 a.m. in Sterling. Yesterday’s information shows both that he was speeding and that his seat belt was not used.
The circumstances of the crash, and the tangled wreckage of the car, make it all the more remarkable that Murray emerged physically unscathed from the rollover. State Police say the angle at which the car sideswiped a rocky ledge on the side of the interstate probably saved his life, reducing the full force of the impact on Murray’s body.
“I understand that the vehicle accelerated rapidly without braking or turning in the seconds before the accident,’’ he said. “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.
“Given the seriousness of the accident, I feel lucky to be alive, and I’m grateful that no one was injured,’’ Murray, 43, told reporters at a State House Press conference yesterday. “I recognize that I should have been more careful. . . . The speed is frightening to me.’’
Murray will be ticketed $555 for speeding, not wearing a seat belt, and a lane violation, but will not face more significant charges. State Police spokesman David Procopio said the absence of a reckless driving charge is “not inconsistent with other similar crashes’’ in which no injuries occurred and no other vehicles were involved.
Murray said that he took full responsibility for the accident and will reimburse the state for the loss of the 2007 Ford Crown Victoria, which police have valued at about $9,000.
Murray, a Democrat, is often talked about as a potential candidate for governor when Deval Patrick’s term expires in 2014.
The potential political implications of the crash were underscored by the presence of two Democratic Party operatives at yesterday’s press conference at the State House, during which Murray faced questioning from reporters about why the facts of the crash did not back up his initial story.
The state Republican Party quickly issued a press release, accusing the Patrick administration of “withholding the truth for two months’’ and asserting that “the public is still left to wonder what the full story is.’’
Murray “has taken responsibility for the accident and is counting his blessings,’’ Patrick said in a statement last night. “As his colleague and his friend, so am I.’’
The investigation showed Murray was driving 75 miles per hour in the seconds leading up to the crash, which occurred before dawn on a stretch of Interstate 190 in Sterling. But his foot fell harder on the car’s accelerator, increasing his speed to 108 miles per hour as the vehicle slid off the roadway and into a rock ledge, rolling over twice. The car’s speed was recorded at 92 miles per hour upon impact with the ledge.
Because Murray’s car sideswiped the wall instead of hitting it head on, Procopio said, it was as if Murray had hit a wall head-on at about 22 miles per hour, a much more survivable crash, Procopio said.
Murray was also helped by the car’s sturdiness and its airbags, according to engineers, who were nonetheless shocked by Murray’s good fortune.
The data showed the car began to slow down quickly after it hit the wall.
“I guess he bounced around and was just damned lucky that the airbag was in the right place,’’ said Thomas Sheridan, a retired MIT mechanical engineering professor. “It is amazing.’’
State Police had previously blamed the crash on black ice, but backtracked on that conclusion yesterday after examining the data. They could not say with “100 percent certainty’’ what caused the crash.
“The data, however, is potentially consistent with an operator falling asleep and not realizing the car had gone off the road until the point of impact,’’ Procopio said in an e-mail. “Facts that are potentially indicative of this cause are the steady acceleration, shallow angle of exit from the roadway, and lack of braking and corrective steering.’’
Sheridan, the engineer, also concurred that there would be no other “rational reason,’’ aside from falling asleep, to accelerate that quickly and then fail to hit the brakes.
Yesterday, Murray, who has two prior speeding infractions, reiterated that he thought he had been wearing a seat belt.
“This accident happened within seconds, and I’ve never been in an accident like that,’’ Murray said yesterday, responding to the discrepancies, adding that he “answered the questions as best as I could’’ when he initially faced questions from reporters.
The data also show he was traveling for about 42 minutes prior to the crash, which appeared to be consistent with his earlier version of the story.
Murray said that on the morning of the accident he left his house in Worcester before 5 a.m., because he was awakened when his 5-year-old daughter hopped into bed with him and he did not want to disturb his wife and daughters. He has said he then drove about 30 miles - while it was still dark out - to survey damage from an early snowstorm and to buy coffee and newspapers.
Following the crash, he asked for, and passed, a sobriety test.
State Police had earlier denied requests from reporters to retrieve the black box data, saying its investigators had more urgent cases and that the cause of Murray’s crash had already been attributed to icy roads.
But State Police reversed the decision after Murray asked for its release.
Most late-model cars are equipped with black-box-like devices that capture data such as speed, throttle position, and brake deployment.
State Police retrieved the data from Murray’s vehicle last week and concluded their investigation Monday.