CLEARWATER — When emergency workers arrived at a deadly eight-vehicle crash on U.S. 19 last Saturday, Daniel Barga told officials he was the passenger in a 2006 Chevy Avalanche that police say triggered the pileup.
Authorities began a search for a driver they believed fled on foot. Just a few years ago, they might have used tape measures, rulers and other traditional tools to re-create the crash scene and solve the mystery. But on Thursday, investigators relied on a fairly new piece of technology that most motorists don't even know is in the car.
A vehicle data recorder in the Avalanche indicated that the passenger seat was unoccupied at the time of the crash on U.S. 19 near Nursery Road, Clearwater police spokeswoman Elizabeth Watts said in an e-mail Friday to the St. Petersburg Times.
"There are sensors in the air bags in the seat and that data showed the seat to be unoccupied and sensors functioning properly," she wrote.
Witness statements that were not available immediately after the crash supported that there was one occupant in the vehicle and that Barga was in fact the driver, she said. Police discovered that he'd borrowed the vehicle from a friend.
Barga, 27, was arrested Thursday on charges of driving without a valid driver's license causing death, driving without a valid driver's license causing serious injury and possession of roxicodone.
Additional charges are pending forensic and lab tests, Watts said.
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Similar in concept to black boxes, which help investigators piece together an airliner's final moments, the automobile version only collects data in the event a severe collision causes air bags to deploy. They are activated in the few milliseconds before, during and after a crash.
The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office, which conducted the forensic analysis for Clearwater police, first received training to use and analyze data from the device in 2000.
"It does not make a case," Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Cecilia Barreda said. "The data obtained, however, can serve to back up or support a crash investigation."
The agency has investigated 19 crashes in 2010 and gathered information from the recorders in 10 of those cases.
The recorders have been in most new cars for at least five years, and actually go back farther than that, according to officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
About 64 percent of all new vehicles in 2005 were equipped with the device, and that number has increased since then, the agency told the Times on Friday.
They started out essentially as monitoring devices to record how well frontal air bags were working. Now they capture speed, braking, seat-belt use and other factors.
Unlike black boxes, which federal law requires on aircraft, auto recorders are not mandatory. But if manufacturers put them in vehicles, they must adhere to a voluntary standard that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued in 2006. That federal rule, which applies to all passenger vehicles and light trucks with a gross vehicle weight of 8,500 pounds or less, takes effect with model year 2011 cars and establishes the minimum data such devices must capture.
It also requires automakers to tell new car buyers if a recorder has been installed.
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Two people were killed and eight others, including Barga, were injured in the June 19 crash.
The relatives of the dead, Richard Kelly and Jancarlos Alberto Schaffer, could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Schaffer's uncle told the Times on Tuesday that his nephew was headed to an event to promote one of his bands when his vehicle was involved in the pileup on U.S. 19.
"We're desperate for answers," Bert Schaffer said Tuesday. "If anyone can come forth and just shed some light into this pit of questions, we're going to greatly appreciate it."
Barga was released from a hospital on Wednesday and was taken into custody on Thursday. He was being held in the Pinellas County Jail on $55,000 bail Friday night.
He has a criminal record that includes previous charges of driving with a suspended license and drug possession.
Court records list him as a habitual traffic offender. Since 1999, he has been cited or arrested on 22 traffic infractions, including multiple charges of speeding and running lights or stop signs.
At the time of the crash Saturday, he was out on bail awaiting trial on a charge of possession of Xanax, an antianxiety drug.
"We did not exclude Barga as the possible driver but covered the possibility of another driver based on information that was immediately available," Watts said. "All leads were thoroughly investigated."
Times staff writer Kameel Stanley contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4167.