Story and photos by JP Molnar
That said, no matter how nice your patrol car is. it's expendable. You aren't. Work enough crashes, and your car will get hit. Photos JP Molnar
Once injuries and emergencies have been addressed, establish traffic control.Photos JP Molnar
Protect your crash scene to preserve evidence and maximize safety.Photos JP Molnar
Flare patterns should clearly establish a traffic flow pattern.Photos JP Molnar
Use your vehicles to protect yourself and the scene.Photos JP Molnar
Photograph all relevant roadway marks before they disappear.Photos JP Molnar
Document and photograph everything you think might be important.Photos JP Molnar
Mark the final positions of vehicles should you need to locate them later.Photos JP Molnar
FEATURED IN TRAINING
- 10th-Anniversary Conference Shines Brighter than Ever
- Pro Tips for the Firing Line, Part II
- ASIS International to Host Transitioning Program & Luncheon for Law Enforcement & Military Professionals
- 5 Reasons Not to Miss ILEETA Conference 2013
- Less-Lethal Lessons
- Through the Darkness
- NRA's Law Enforcement Division: A Great Resource
It's another day on the roads of your local beat. Between the domestic squabbles, petty theft reports and an occasional rogue dog, things seem like they re cruising toward another trip to the barn. Then the radio crackles something about some debris in the roadway someplace not too far from you. Thinking nothing of it, you advise dispatch you ll catch it on the way back to the station. As you approach, things just don t look right. You start to see vehicles strewn everywhere, many pointing in odd directions and missing numerous body parts. You see smoke rising, vehicles on their side and the burning hulk of what was once a tractor-trailer. As you pull to a stop, you start to count one, two, three vehicles, but give up after reaching 10. You curse yourself for not paying attention in those academy classes on crash investigation. Your throat is dry, your breath short and your sweaty palms can barely hold the microphone as you croak out the words, Uh, send me everybody.
As first on scene, what you do in the first few critical minutes can make the difference in not only determining the cause of the crash, but also ensure that more personal and property damage doesn t occur. The following is a basic primer for investigating any crash, no matter the severity. Note: Make sure any protocol you follow falls within the parameters of your department s policy and procedures guidelines.
When responding to a crash report, the location is often several minutes, if not hours, away, and the reported severity of the crash can significantly affect your psychological and physical response levels. The distance hasn t changed, the traffic flow hasn t changed and the weather hasn t changed, but your mindset has drastically changed. And like a pursuit, heart rate and blood pressure rise, tunnel vision develops, and adrenaline flows. But you can t do any good unless you get there. Take the necessary time appropriate for the situation and get there safely.
Establish Initial Traffic Control
If you are first on scene, you must establish preliminary traffic control with your patrol vehicle. First, it protects the scene and preserves evidence. Second, it alerts traffic that something requires their immediate attention. Finally, it helps to protect persons involved in the crash and rescuers. When you arrive, park your vehicle in a manner that best protects what s in front of you. Make sure it s far enough back so that if it gets hit, it won t be propelled into the crash scene. Save the flares and cones for later because your next priority is determining the emergency level.
Injuries & Other Emergencies
You must ascertain the extent of the emergency and injuries as quickly as possible. Are they life threatening? Will you need a helicopter? An extrication team? Are vehicles on fire? Is the roadway blocked? Are there visible injuries, or is it a property crash? Can the vehicles be moved? Relaying these answers to dispatch can go a long way toward getting the appropriate help to the scene. In the case of a non-injury crash, communicating this will allow other responding emergency personnel to downgrade their response mode and maximize their safety.
Get That Traffic Under Control
Once you ve determined the extent of the crash scene, you can go back to your car and use those cones and flares to set up a more permanent traffic-control pattern. If you re setting up a flare or cone pattern, walk down the edge of the roadway facing traffic until you get to the farthest point away from your car where you want to establish traffic control. Place your cone or flare down on the edge of the fog line, sidewalk, etc., and walk backwards, facing traffic, while continuing to drop cones/flares every few feet, each one a little farther out into the lanes you want to block. Eventually you ll reach the back of your unit, and you will have established the desired lane closure. For several reasons, this method can be safer than starting in the travel lane at your car and walking toward traffic as you lay cones/flares. First, it allows you to walk along the shoulder/sidewalk in relative safety so that if needed, you can jump out of the path of an oncoming car. Second, placing the first cone or flare farthest from your car provides the earliest possible warning to motorists. Third, if someone does aim at your patrol car, and they will, starting from the edge of the roadway will allow you to see that behavior much sooner and take evasive action.
That said, no matter how nice your patrol car is, it s expendable. You aren t. Work enough crashes, and your car will get hit. So, use your car to protect yourself and others. If someone hits it, oh well. Just don t be near it when it happens.
If situations dictate, close the roadway completely if that provides the safest method for handling the crash rescue and subsequent investigation. Coordinate responding units to locations that allow you to establish safe and efficient traffic control. If needed, contact your local roadway department for cones and barricades. In short, use everything and anything to make it work.
Locate Drivers & Witnesses
Locate involved drivers and immediately get their paperwork. This will help ensure they won t leave the scene. Next, identify witnesses and get their statements as soon as possible. Make sure they actually saw the crash occur, not just the aftermath. Tell each witness to find you when they are done writing their statement. Many important witness statements have disappeared on crash scenes because witnesses gave them to unknown individuals. Once you ve dealt with the witnesses, ask the drivers about what happened, and get statements. Don t place a lot of importance on passenger statements because their testimony may not be objective, for obvious reasons. After all the witnesses and drivers have completed statements, collect and place all of them in your car until you or someone else needs them.
Photographs Speak 1,000 Words
This is a good time to discuss fire and rescue personnel, otherwise known as the Evidence Eradication Team. Their job is to save lives, not to collect evidence, so don t expect them to have the same priorities as you. Because of this difference in philosophies at a crash scene, you must take as many photographs as early as possible to document what occurred. If fire personnel plan to cut the roof off of a vehicle to extricate someone, get as many photographs of that vehicle as you can before they start their work.
Photograph all roadway marks starting from as far back as you can visually see anything that might have been left by one of the involved vehicles. Take the photographs from the level and perspective of what the driver might have seen. Try to avoid using zoom or wide-angle settings because they don t provide an accurate frame of reference when judging distances. If you do need to photograph a piece of roadway evidence, start with a general overall shot of the area around the evidence, and progressively zoom in on it. That way, it can be located at a later time relative to its position in the crash scene. Take as many photographs as you need, and then some.
Examine the Vehicles Involved
Even if you aren t a trained crash investigator, examining both vehicles can give you clues as to what occurred. If one driver swears he was going only 5 mph when he rear-ended the vehicle in front of him, the damage to both vehicles should reflect that. In cases of angle crashes, check for horizontal striations in paint that can indicate which vehicles were in motion when the crash occurred. Examine body parts closely for signs of paint transfer. Take photographs. If needed, and if the vehicles involved have not been moved prior to your arrival, use a can of spray paint to mark each vehicle s tires as well as direction of travel. Spray marks on the roadway identifying each vehicle. If both vehicles have been moved prior to your arrival, identifying what happened can prove more difficult, but not impossible.
The Voice of the Roadway
When a vehicle crashes, it leaves distinct markings that document all of the effects of physics on that vehicle in all phases of the crash. Think of the roadway as a large chalkboard where the story of the crash is written. It shows you the path of the vehicles prior to collision, the roadway-surface factors affecting that path, the area where the actual crash occurred and the paths each vehicle took after impact. By examining all of these marks, you can obtain some initial impressions as to why the crash happened.
Document all of the roadway evidence as best you can. If you haven t been trained to draw a field sketch or diagram, find someone who has and preserve the scene as best you can until they get there. If that isn t feasible, take as many photographs as possible, starting from the beginning of the crash scene, leading up to the final position of each vehicle. Then repeat the process in reverse; investigating the path in both directions will lead to new clues. Finally, mark all relevant roadway marks with spray paint so they can be located at a later date. Avoid spraying on the actual roadway mark. Instead, spray each end with dots, half circles, etc. Establish a labeling system so you know which roadway mark corresponds to each vehicle. Make sure you photograph and write down the existing roadway conditions on the day and time of the crash. Ideally, you ll want to always record the roadway marks that are most temporary first, and then concentrate on more indelible marks. Remember, it s better to record too much information than not enough.
Opening the Roadway
No matter where your crash occurs, you are in charge. You owe it to the people involved to do a thorough investigation. Obtain all evidence, then coordinate with the tow-truck drivers to make sure all vehicles, debris and any fluids are cleaned up. In some cases where blood-borne pathogens and hazmat issues exist, you ll need to coordinate the cleanup of the roadway with specialized units. In any case, don t open the road until you re satisfied your investigation is complete.
So, What Happened?
In many cases, it s fairly easy to figure out what happened, especially in low-speed property crashes. As things get more complicated, you ll need to rely on witnesses, roadway evidence, vehicle damage, photographs, sketches, etc., to determine the cause. If the crash is especially complex, you will most likely need to call a crash-investigation officer to the scene. In some situations, a conclusion may not come at the time of the crash. Once you are sure about what happened, issue the appropriate enforcement action (e.g., citation, arrest, complaint request, etc.) and complete all necessary crash paperwork as dictated by your agency.
Arriving at the scene of a bad crash can send shivers of apprehension through even the most seasoned patrol officer. But by following the basic guidelines outlined above, you can successfully and safely obtain all of the necessary ingredients needed to conduct a basic crash investigation, or preserve and record the evidence needed by officers in your department who are trained to conduct such investigations. In either case, you owe it to the people involved to conduct the most thorough investigation possible.