CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — Engineer Richard Ruth told jurors in Trooper Robert Higbee's vehicular homicide trial that Higbee was traveling 65 mph in the moments before he crashed into another car at an Upper Township intersection.
Ruth, a former Ford Motor Co. employee who works as a private consultant, analyzed the data collected by the event data recorder, or EDR, taken from Higbee's 2005 Ford Crown Victoria police interceptor.
The EDR, sometimes called a vehicle's black box, records more than a dozen types of information in its powertrain control module, or PCM, but Ruth focused on the speed, braking and acceleration recorded by the PCM in the 25 seconds before the crash.
Ruth said the PCM is “the brain that runs the engine in Ford Motor Co. products.”
Higbee ran the stop sign at the intersection of Tuckahoe and Stagecoach roads on Sept. 27, 2006, colliding with a Dodge Caravan minivan occupied by Jacqueline Becker, 17, and her sister, Christina Becker, 19. The Upper Township sisters died at the scene. Five months later Higbee was indicted on two counts of vehicular homicide.
Ruth, testifying for the prosecution as an expert witness, told First Assistant Prosecutor J. David Meyer that the PCM recorded a final speed of 65 mph. The device stopped recording upon impact because the crash destroyed the police car's battery, causing it to lose power.
Using a series of charts, Ruth took jurors through those last 25 seconds, tracing the police car's path as it moved between a maximum of 79.6 mph and the final impact speed.
Ruth said the car initially accelerated to 75 mph as Higbee attempted to catch a speeder traveling north on Stagecoach Road. That took place at least 2,300 feet and between 25 and 20 seconds from the point of impact, he said.
From there, the car maintained a speed between 70 and 80 mph for about 14 seconds. The car then coasted as Higbee touched the brake intermittently between 2.8 and 6 seconds before the collision, he said.
"The foot (of the driver) is going back and forth, back and forth, back and forth," Ruth said.
Ruth said the speed remained at about 75 mph as late as 1.6 seconds before the crash or between 276 to 166 feet before impact.
"The foot of the driver is not touching the brake pedal at that time," Ruth said.
Ruth said the car then entered a final phase, which he called the avoid impact phase, in the 1.4 seconds to two-tenths of a second before impact.
It is during that period, he said, that the speed rapidly declined and that the brake was depressed "with enough force to slow the vehicle significantly."
"That last two-tenths of a second here is consistent with hard braking," Ruth said.
But it was not enough to avoid the collision.
For Higbee to have stopped in time, Ruth said, he would have had to begin braking at last 300 feet from the point of impact, given the speeds he was traveling.
During his cross-examination, defense attorney D. William Subin focused on Ruth's work for the Cape May County Prosecutor's Office and the testing Ruth performed on a 2005 Ford Crown Victoria police interceptor in 2007.
He noted that Ruth was serving as paid consultant at the rate of $200 per hour, and that Ruth first offered his services to the county in February 2008 after a current Ford engineer was not required to testify in the case.
Ruth tested a similar vehicle in a series of tests in 2007, but he said only a portion of those test results had undergone peer review by professionals.
Ruth also testified that EDRs were not created specifically for accident reconstruction or investigation, but rather as a tool for manufacturers to assess their cars’ safety.
Subin added that Ford has not crash-tested the EDRs, but Ruth said the EDRs are "tested during normal operation" of Ford vehicles.
Subin asked if EDRs could replace more traditional investigation methods such as the momentum analysis used by the State Police in Higbee's case.
“The (powertrain control module) is one more tool, but it does contain information above and beyond the momentum analysis," Ruth said.
The trial will resume Tuesday morning after the Memorial Day holiday with the continuing cross-examination of Sgt. 1st Class John McMahon, an accident reconstructionist with the State Police.
Superior Court Judge Raymond Batten also told the jurors that testimony would be heard on Friday, May 29. Normally, the trial has been held only on Mondays through Thursdays.
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