Why Visit the Collision Scene?

Author

Expertise Includes:

    • Vehicle Collision Reconstruction
    • Crash Data Retrieval
    • Forensic Mapping Technology
    • Motorcycle Collision Reconstruction

If you are a collision investigator, a visit to the collision scene is something you want to do. No matter how much time has passed since the crash compared to the review of the case, the information that can be gleaned from walking through the area is valuable. We aren’t always given the option, but it is very beneficial, here is why.

The collision report is not always a dependable document. It is the opinion of the officer and they occasionally get details wrong. Past experiences of such include things such as, but not limited to:

  • Roads wrongly depicted: an example is six lanes of travel drawn as four. Those extra lanes added distance to the crash that was important.
  • Intersections drawn erroneously: one of my first private cases was a four-way intersection diagrammed by the officer as a T-intersection, and the missing portion of the roadway was important to the facts of the case.
  • Speed limit errors: in a past case, the officer documented the speed limit as 10 mph faster than what was posted. When speed is an issue, that’s a huge discovery. (Noting when the sign was erected is extremely important in this situation.)
  • North arrow inaccuracy: a seemingly simple mistake. This could, dependent on the sun rise or set versus the travel direction, be an issue for the driver’s vision.
  • Other signs not documented: important information that is missed. The officer may approach from a different direction and not see or not realize the importance of signage that should have impacted a driver prior to the crash.

These are just a few things that have come to mind on cases that I have worked on where a trip to the collision scene caught the blunder or uncovered the incorrect details in the completed police report.

This is a capture of the disclaimer that is written at the bottom of the SC Traffic Collision Report Form (TR-310). Other states have similar text within their reports as well.

Certainly, some of these things could be observed from Google Earth or some other map.  Putting boots on the ground means taking the time to have an actual look at the thoroughfare. This produces the opportunity to make observations and take photographs. The perspectives captured could make the difference in how the jury understands the collision area and the explanations of what occurred. Witnesses have been identified during scene trips, having details about the event or area. These people were not listed by the investigating agency and would have never been found sitting behind a computer looking at a map. (Google has captured scene evidence in their drive throughs and has provided details due to lack of photographs by investigating officers. Don’t overlook that resource.)

Another benefit is the potential to locate evidence that will assist in the case.  Gouges in the asphalt and possibly other details about the collision that can’t be seen in pictures may be found when walking through the crash area.  In one instance, I was able to locate a tree that was damaged from a vehicle in its post impact travel.

This photograph was taken related to a scene inspection for a collision that was months old by the time I received the case and started my investigation. The report showed one of the vehicles having contact with a tree.

Beside that tree buried in the leaves was a sideview mirror that was from the year, make, model, and color of the vehicle involved in the crash.  This located the final rest location of the vehicle, which allowed for a departure angle to be estimated from the intersection, and ultimately a speed calculation that proved the vehicle didn’t stop at the stop sign.  These details about the crash were then available because of the identified vehicle part left by the wrecker service (when it’s a benefit that someone doesn’t do their job well).

I was able to locate trees with impact damage and vehicle parts from the same year, make, model and color as the vehicle in the crash. This was a big breakthrough for speed calculations in this case.

What if it’s a roadway defect case and multiple parts from several makes of vehicles are located in the area now showing that there are multiple crashes happening in the area? Pictures of multiple parts from different vehicles make a visual statement to the jury to aid the stack of collision reports supporting the case.

It is true that, depending on the area and growth or changes that occur, it may not be the same collision area that was experienced by the drivers and the investigating officer. This could be argued for every case investigated. The time, weather, traffic, and other things influence what is experienced at the time of the crash. The roadway may be repaved or repainted.  Signs may be added or taken down.  It may be redesigned completely. Those things should still be documented. Jurors that are familiar with the area will remember how it was, and those who are not as familiar will likely still relate to the area when presented with photographs and explanations. Photographing the area even though it has changed will still help the jury understand the difference and the changes when the witnesses explain what happened and what was different.  Going to Google Earth and obtaining old maps will help the explanations as well.

Taking time to go to a collision scene, regardless of the time passed, is always a good idea. I have never been in a trial or a deposition where I was not asked if I had been to the area, followed by questions about the scene that could not be comfortably answered without the experience of visiting the crash site. This is not only a need for the investigator, but a good idea for the adjuster or attorney as well.  Though it may not always be an option, it should be done whenever possible.

For help regarding a collision scene investigation, or for more information on event data recorder downloads and collision reconstructions, contact an expert at WARREN today.

Aaron (Al) Duncan II, ACTAR, is a vehicle collision reconstructionist with Warren and President of SCARS. Prior to joining Warren, he worked for 23 years as a South Carolina Highway Patrol Trooper to include 10 years as a Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation Team (M.A.I.T.) member. Al is accredited as a Traffic Accident Reconstructionist by The Accreditation Commission for Traffic Accident Reconstruction. He investigated in excess of 1000 vehicle accidents and incidents, as a trooper. Then, as a member of M.A.I.T. for 10 years, he was involved in over 1000 detailed investigations and collision reconstructions. Al has testified multiple times in state courts and he has been court qualified as an expert in accident investigation and collision reconstruction. Al’s work expertise focuses on investigating and reconstructing vehicle collisions involving single and multi-vehicles, animals, pedestrians, motorcycles, heavy trucks, and commercial vehicles. He is also a skilled user of forensic mapping technology and computerized collision diagramming software for collision scene analysis. Al is experienced in the data download and analysis of airbag black boxes (Crash Data Retrieval Units) in automobiles, pickup trucks, and SUVs. He holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Political Science from Lander University in Greenwood, South Carolina and completed the Law Enforcement Basic Program at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia, South Carolina.

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