TRENTON - Gov. Corzine's SUV was flying along the Garden State Parkway at 91 m.p.h. in a 65-m.p.h. zone before it collided with another vehicle and slammed into a guardrail, state police acknowledged yesterday while promising a full review of driving practices.
State Police Superintendent Col. Joseph "Rick" Fuentes said the SUV driver, Trooper Robert Rasinski, had slowed the vehicle to 30 m.p.h. by the time it crashed. But he backed away from his initial claim that speed wasn't a factor in the wreck, conceding that it did contribute to the accident in which Corzine badly broke his left leg and fractured 10 ribs, a collarbone and his breastbone.
The governor, who was in the front passenger seat and not wearing a seat belt, remained on a ventilator yesterday in critical but stable condition at Cooper University Hospital in Camden. Corzine's assistant, who was traveling in the backseat, also unrestrained, suffered minor injuries, as did Rasinski, who was wearing a seat belt.
"Speed is always a contributing factor in any accident," Fuentes said, speaking to reporters after releasing an update on the accident investigation. "It goes to the heart of what damage you may have to the vehicle. We need to put speed in the context of the reason it was going that speed."
Rasinski was driving Corzine on Thursday from a speaking engagement in Atlantic City to the governor's mansion in Princeton, where he was to host a meeting between radio host Don Imus and the Rutgers University women's basketball team the shock jock had insulted.
Rasinski was using the SUV's police emergency lights, which he has discretion to use in addition to speed "as necessary," as all troopers do, Fuentes said.
"There was no discussion between the governor and the trooper about going a certain speed," Fuentes said.
State police also said it was not the driver's responsibility to make sure Corzine wore his seat belt. In New Jersey, front-seat passengers must wear seat belts. Violators can be fined $46. Drivers are responsible for those under 18.
Fuentes said Rasinski could return to work after being cleared for duty by a state police physician. Whether he faces disciplinary action remains to be seen.
Fuentes said that state police were still investigating and that the State Police Motor Vehicle Accident and Vehicular Pursuit Review Board would be convened soon to review the accident report.
The panel, which reviews all accidents and pursuits involving state police vehicles, will determine whether the crash was preventable and whether any special training or disciplinary action is required.
In a move "to ensure transparency and accountability," Fuentes said he had asked Attorney General Stuart Rabner to appoint another member to the board, which is otherwise made up of state police. He said Rabner had named Kathleen Wiechnik of the state Ethics Commission to the task.
Fuentes said he also had asked Rabner to name an independent group to review the driving practices of the state police Executive Protection Unit.
Though the president of the state troopers' union defended Rasinski, saying the use of speed and emergency lights was common, two police experts said it was inexcusable under the circumstances.
"I think there has to be some reason to violate the speed laws, said Geoffrey Alpert, a professor of criminology at the University of South Carolina who evaluates high-risk police activities. "It doesn't make any sense to go that fast to get to that meeting. He should have left a little earlier."
Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and author of The New World of Police Accountability, agreed, saying: "This was not a pursuit. There was no reason for it.
"I think there's a broader problem of public officials who believe they are above the law. Traveling at 91 m.p.h. is a demonstration of that," Walker said.
State police said they determined Rasinski was going 91 m.p.h. five seconds before crashing into the guardrail, based in part on data retrieved from the vehicle's "black box," which records speed and other data at five-second intervals.
Investigators also relied on evidence from the accident scene and interviews with witnesses in updating their reconstruction of the crash.
State police have said the governor had a "very aggressive schedule" the day of the crash and had been scheduled to travel by helicopter between appointments. Fog, however, forced him to take to the road.
The accident happened about 6 p.m. in Galloway Township, at least 85 miles from Corzine's 7 p.m. meeting at Drumthwacket.
Corzine's 2005 Chevrolet Suburban, the lead vehicle in a two-SUV motorcade, was in the passing lane traveling north with its emergency lights flashing to clear the way, state police said. Kenneth Potts Jr., a 20-year-old casino worker from Little Egg Harbor, Atlantic County, was in a red pickup truck in the right lane, and he pulled onto the shoulder to get out of the way. He swerved back into traffic to avoid a mile-marker post.
A white pickup in the right lane behind Potts swerved left to avoid his truck and ended up ramming the right front of Corzine's SUV, state police said.
As Rasinski tried to regain control of the Suburban, it slid into a milepost marker before the front driver's side hit the guardrail. The vehicle then spun halfway around before coming to rest with its back end on top of the guardrail, state police said.
State police interviewed Potts, who they said left the scene not knowing he had been involved in an accident, and the driver of the white pickup, John Carrino Jr. of Sussex County. Neither has been charged, and Fuentes said he believed neither would be.
Fuentes said there were no specific speed guidelines for troopers - "nothing about a maximum speed in the normal course of transporting the governor."
Speeding isn't uncommon for chief executives.
In 2004, Gov. Rendell admitted to traveling at "unconscionable" speeds after the Philadelphia Daily News reported his limo had several times been clocked exceeding 100 m.p.h. He acknowledged ordering his trooper driver, "Let's fly," and promised to slow down.
Former New Jersey governors said they, too, sometimes made use of flashing lights and excessive speed.
"When there were emergencies, I guess we did it," former Gov. Jim Florio said.
He said it depended on whether the driver "feels it's appropriate - not on a regular basis, and apparently that's policy here in the administration as well."
Former Gov. Jim McGreevey said the trooper driving him would sometimes use the flashers to travel on the shoulder during traffic jams. "The Executive Protection Unit employs great caution and common sense," he said. "The trooper uses his or her best discretion based on traffic conditions as well as the governor's schedule."
David Jones, president of the New Jersey State Troopers Fraternal Association, said that speeding and using emergency lights were "not just normal" but also "necessary."
"You can't allow yourself to be boxed in, paralleled or overtaken. That's executive protection 101," he said of road conditions.
"I don't care if he was doing 100," Jones said. "The issue isn't speeding. The issue is some guy who panicked and lost control of his vehicle. And the governor is the victim of that domino effect."