Traffic fatalities in the United States have reached epidemic proportions. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), 42,636 people were killed in traffic-related collisions in 2004. Unfortunately, it has become an acceptable expense of doing business in modern life.
Nearly every police agency in the country has a unit that deals, at least in part, with traffic fatalities. These cases are no different than any other death under investigation, with the exception that a traffic detail typcially responds rather than the homicide unit.
Today, homicide units typically receive vast amounts of training to keep up with the changes in technology in an ever-modernizing world. Collision investigation should be no different. Now more than ever, police budgets and training must reflect the technological advancements of the modern collision investigator.
Collision investigators no longer respond merely to gather information for insurance companies. These days, people are being tried for offenses ranging all the way up to murder for killing someone while behind the wheel. Furthermore, defense lawyers now hire highly educated engineering firms for their defense, and going up against an engineer can intimidate some officers.
Having the training and technology to back up your investigations is imperative because no matter how many collisions your agency investigates each year, it s just a matter of time until you re hit with a potentially criminal fatal collision. This article discusses the science and technology of the modern collision investigation from the crime scene to the office.
Training remains the single most important requirement for your crash-investigation team. Many of these cases result in homicide charges, and legal-defense experts often include degreed engineers. Your team must understand the physics and mathematics behind the crash now more than ever.
Police officers typically aren t schooled in engineering, and the basis for nearly all reconstruction comes from Newtonian physics, the physics of mechanics. You probably remember studying Newton s Three Laws of Motion in school. Now you know a real world application for this information. You must thoroughly understand how these laws of science apply in order to fundamentally explain your conclusions to a jury.
Today, very few schools train reconstruction. Many state police departments offer courses that only teach basic reconstruction principles. More advanced investigation techniques, such as pedestrian, motorcycle, commercial vehicle and other specialty classes, require attendance at one of the schools.
The University of North Florida s Institute of Police Technology and Management based in Jacksonville, Fla., offers courses from basic collision investigation through very advanced techniques, including a class modeled after an engineering course called Applied Physics for the Collision Reconstructionist. It also offers specialty course work in pedestrian/bicycle collision investigations, commercial-vehicle collision investigations and motorcycle collision investigations.
In all, this school offers 25 collision investigation courses. Also, the university will travel with these courses, so if you can get the attendance, they ll come to you.
The Northwestern University Traffic Institute based in Evanston, Ill., also offers courses in collision investigation. Northwestern offers roughly 10 collision courses, including advanced course work in commercial-vehicle collisions and pedestrian collisions. Northwestern also offers coursework online.
The best crash units in the country have one very important common denominator: They are professionally and thoroughly trained. Even a small, part-time crash unit can be good with the right training and equipment. You never know when your crash unit will be called to the big one.
Criminal charges in a traffic fatality don t have to stem from impairment. Although often this is the cause for criminal charges, other root causes can lead to a criminal charge of negligent homicide, manslaughter and even second-degree murder.
Example: speed. You must establish a solid speed for a vehicle involved in a collision. One of the key factors to establishing a valid speed is the frictional value at the roadway-tire interface. The days of the drag sled and fishing scale are gone. That method of calculating the coefficient of friction for a roadway went away with the rise of television shows such as CSI and the Discovery Channel. Juries want more and more technology, and defense attorneys can too easily show the drag sled to be erroneous.
To really turn a jury, the investigator must be able to use the best technology available to their department. And there are many options available that will suit the needs of the juror s craving for technology without breaking a department s budget.
Example: The Vericom VC3000 is an accelerometer that can download data to a laptop or desktop computer. The unit measures acceleration in all three vehicle axes every 10 milliseconds, and tables it. The software that comes with the unit will graph it for you and allow you to establish a good friction range for the road surface. The training for the device consists of a two-day course taught by the company s owner and founder, and the device won t break the budget it costs roughly $2,200.
The Visual Statement AccelereX is another valid accelerometer that won t break the budget. At $1,195, it will do most of what the Vericom will do. It also measures acceleration every 10 milliseconds and will table and graph the data for you. The cost includes a Pocket PC you can use for other applications as well.
There are numerous other accelerometers on the market that will do the job just as well as these. Do some research and find the one that suits your department s needs the best. They ll get the job done and impress a jury.
At homicide scenes, diagrams are typically completed to document the location of evidence found at the scene of the crime. The collision diagram goes beyond this and can be another important piece of the speed calculations.
Homicide detectives often deal in small evidence, but collision investigations deal in evidence that often proves challenging to measure on scene. Approach and departure angles can often only be measured with an accurate and detailed scaled diagram.
In collision reconstruction, the diagram has been around for a long time, but modern technology can add a lot to this tool. Most agencies now employ some sort of survey equipment to diagram a collision scene, from a Total Station Survey head to a GPS unit to the one-man Vulcan systems. Some agencies still use tape measures, while some large agencies use scanners that can measure a scene with a flip of a switch and output a three-dimensional diagram that looks like a photo.
Tape measures cost very little but take longer to use and offer much less precision. A Total Station System starts around $5,000. Scanning systems can cost as much as $150,000.
There are multiple uses for this equipment. Often crime-scene units can also use the devices to complete diagrams. Collision investigators can use the equipment to measure the scene as well as the vehicles involved.
If you don t have high-tech diagramming gear, consider working with the civil engineering department within your jurisdiction. They often have equipment or a use for such equipment.
A great deal of new information for collision investigators came with the advent of the modern airbag system and the solid-state, decision-making electronics behind it. General Motors began recording crash-pulse information in the early 1990s, but kept the information proprietary. GM released the proprietary algorithm to Vetronix for public access in 2000. With the release of this software package, some GM vehicles are accessible back to 1994, and Ford vehicles are accessible back to 2001. Chrysler just released its system, and other manufacturers are not far behind.
All are downloadable using the Bosch Crash Data Retrieval System. This system runs about $2,500 and allows access to information regarding the vehicle speed, engine speed, brake-switch position and much more when the vehicle considered an airbag deployment command. These data-recording systems record 2.5 10 seconds of pre-crash information in General Motors vehicles (typically only five seconds at once per second is available). Ford vehicles provide 20 seconds of pre-crash information.
The pre-crash information is just a small piece of what s available. The record also contains seatbelt information, and the change in velocity resulting from the collision. All this data can validate a reconstruction to an extent that puts a case beyond a reasonable doubt.
For 2010, the NHTSA has instituted a rule that will allow automakers to choose whether they will install these devices. However, if an automaker chooses to include a data recorder, it must be accessible to the public and must contain a standardized output.
The caveat: The investigator retrieving and analyzing the data must be properly trained. Resources are available for training, and it s often included in the price of the equipment required to complete the download. If your agency doesn t utilize this equipment or doesn t have the budget for it, most, if not all, state police agencies can download it for you. Your personnel will probably have to do the analyzing on the downloaded data, though. Once again, training is the key.
Today s collision investigator is tasked with a job that has become more multi-disciplinary than ever. The modern collision investigator must understand the application of criminal law, constitutional law, evidence collection, evidence documentation and the appropriate application of physics at nearly the engineering level. Collision investigators are involved in potential murder cases as often, and in some cases even more often, than homicide units. Proper training and equipment is a must.
This is a highly technical field now. You must keep up with the defense, which often means being as good if not better than the engineer working the case for the other side.
Vendor Contact Info
University of Florida IPTM—www.iptm.org
Northwestern University CPS—www.nucps.northwestern.edu
Bosch CDR Tool—www.boschdiagnostics.com