Gov. Corzine's state police driver could go as fast as he wanted, use his emergency lights at his discretion, and generally ignore most traffic laws with impunity because he's not bound by normal laws or guidelines.

That's hardly surprising to anyone familiar with executive protection and the dirty little secrets of public office.

But, last week, the leeway given to New Jersey's top executive when he's on the road nearly cost Corzine his life in a harrowing crash on the Garden State Parkway.

At the time, Corzine's driver, State Trooper Robert Rasinski, was driving 91 m.p.h. in a 5,600-pound SUV and flashing emergency lights at vehicles in the way, all while the governor was sitting, unbuckled, in the front passenger seat - the most dangerous place to ride.

Those facts, most of them released days after the April 12 crash, starkly contrast with the version first put out by state police - that a red pickup had led to the governor's vehicle being forced off the road, then drove off.

In fact, the pickup set off the chain reaction that caused the accident while swerving to get out of the way of the governor's Chevy Suburban, which was barreling down the highway. The driver had no idea that a crash had occurred.

"It's the old story about the 500-pound gorilla going where he wants to go when he wants to get there," said Richard W. Kobetz, director of the Executive Protection Institute, a Virginia-based private security company. "It's the same way with protecting people. They tell you what they want. If you want to keep your position, you follow orders."

Corzine, 60, remained in critical but stable condition yesterday and was still breathing on a ventilator at Cooper University Hospital in Camden.

His doctors said they had placed two catheters into his chest to bathe his 10 broken ribs with a local anesthetic. The goal is to take Corzine off the ventilator, but he's still in too much pain for that to happen, doctors said.

Corzine also suffered a compound break to his left leg, and he fractured his collarbone and breastbone.

A review panel that looks into all crashes involving state police vehicles will examine the circumstances of this accident. The State Attorney General appointed another member to the panel, which is normally made up of state police, from the state Ethics Commission.

Although state troopers driving prisoners are required to buckle up their charges, troopers on the governor's detail don't have to make the state's chief executive wear his seat belt.

"That's one of the things we're going to look at with regard to the panel," said Capt. Al Della Fave, a state police spokesman. "Is that something that should be required of the executive protection person?"

Corzine's chief of staff, Tom Shea, said last week that "we would certainly expect and encourage the state police to issue a citation" to the governor for not wearing his seat belt.

But Della Fave said that, typically, a person injured as badly as the governor was would not be cited because, presumably, he's learned his lesson the hard way.

"They've suffered already," he said. "Our aim is to change behavior. Those individuals who express there will be change in behavior, those ones will get warnings and not summons."

The review panel also might want to consider what kind of vehicle the state police use to drive around the governor. Jon Linkov, the managing editor of autos for Consumer Reports, said the Suburban has a high center of gravity, heavy weight and "ungainly handling."

"Not wearing a seat belt?" Linkov said. "That front passenger seat isn't called the 'death seat' for nothing. It's amazing he's alive."

As for the speed, State Police Superintendent Col. Joseph "Rick" Fuentes said that the governor's drivers would be asked to obey all traffic laws in a nonemergency situation, but added that troopers have discretion to use emergency lights and to speed, as necessary.

"There are no guidelines . . . nothing about a maximum speed in the normal course of transporting the governor," he said.

While Fuentes said Corzine did not order his driver to speed, the governor, who had just given a speech in Atlantic City, was running late for a meeting at Drumthwacket with the Rutgers women's basketball team and radio host Don Imus.

"I think everyone should understand that speed kills," said lawyer Lewis April, who represents two South Jersey families whose relatives were killed in accidents with speeding police officers. "I don't know what gives the state trooper the right to exceed the limit that far and defer to the governor when the governor is not wearing a seat belt. It's ridiculous."

But Kobetz said the trooper did nothing wrong traveling at that speed, in proper conditions, if he thought he had control of the vehicle.

"In his judgment it was safe to do it, and he did it. If it was unsafe to do it, he would have to say, 'I can't do this. I have to do this at a slower pace, though I understand you're in an hurry,' " he said. "What else can you say? The reality of the world is that each of us has his own missions and priorities."

Anthony Ricci, president of Advanced Driving and Security Inc. in Rhode Island, a training school for security personnel, agreed that the trooper probably handled the crash better than most drivers would have. But he said that driving a poor-handling vehicle at 91 m.p.h., covering the length of a football field in less than 2.5 seconds, is too fast.

"The average person takes three-quarters of a second just to recognize a potential hazard. It takes another three-quarter second to tell your hands and feet what to do," he said. "A trooper with training might be somewhat faster, but nobody on earth could react quickly enough to swerve or avoid that threat."

Rasinski did react, dropping the speed to about 30 m.p.h. before crashing into a guardrail, which punctured the passenger cab.

Della Fave said the review board would also examine "whether it was appropriate to be driving 91 m.p.h."

Although the governor might not have to follow the normal rules of the road, there are some laws that he can't avoid when traveling at unsafe speeds.

"Physics are physics," Linkov said. "No one is immune to its laws."

Contact staff writer Troy Graham at 856-779-3893 or
Inquirer staff writer Elisa Ung contributed to this article.