Traffic accident investigation and reconstructions can determine liability in the event of a traffic collision. Each day across the United States, people and machines react unexpectedly, causing thousands of traffic accidents claiming lives or causing permanent injuries. Of the over 6 million police reported traffic accidents in 2014, there were 29,989 fatal traffic accidents resulting in 32,675 fatalities in the U.S. Colorado alone had 544 fatalities in 2015, a rise of 56 fatalities over the 488 reported in 2014. Over 2 million people were injured with an economic loss estimated at over $242 billion.
When a traffic accident occurs, it is often not enough to simply say that something went wrong. A traffic accident investigation and traffic accident reconstruction can determine exactly what happened and can help prevent future traffic accidents. Additionally, traffic accident investigators can provide expert testimony in trials to hold the correct party accountable for the damage incurred by the traffic accident.
So why are people referring to a traffic “accident” as a “traffic crash”? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an “accident” is defined as an unexpected and undesirable event, especially one resulting in damage or harm. Basically an unforeseen incident. A “traffic crash” is defined as colliding violently or to strike against something with great force, causing damage or destruction, or cause something such as a car to strike against something in this way.
The difference between an “accident” and a “crash” is an “accident” implied something that was out of your control and unavoidable whereas a “crash” describes a violent collision. A person who causes a traffic accident could have avoided the incident based on their decisions. It may as well mean for some unexplained reason, forces of the universe have met at a certain point in time and place and a result occurred that defies explanation. It means that it has likely never happened before and will probably never occur again in the future.
There are plenty of reasons why people turn to Traffic accident investigation:
What Happens In A Traffic Accident Investigation?
The police will investigate a traffic accident with the intention of determining if any criminal action took place in the traffic accident. Some of the things the police look for are speeding, hours-of-service violations, mechanical violations, alcohol use, drug use, etc. For example, if a truck driver is exceeding his hours of service and causes a serious traffic accident because he fell asleep at the wheel, he will likely be criminally charged. If that traffic accident results in a fatality, the charge will likely be vehicular homicide.
Depending on the nature of the traffic accident, a traffic accident investigation can include visits to the accident site as well as interviews with witnesses and with those involved. A traffic accident investigator will attempt to re-create exactly what happened so they can see exactly what took place and how. Today, this often is done with a variety of computer software programs. A traffic accident investigator may collect testimonies and other evidence, such as measure and document the scene with photographs and notes, that can help you determine exactly what happened in a traffic accident.
During the reconstruction stage, investigators will examine the point of impact, final resting positions, skid marks, scrub marks, and gouge marks. Electronic surveying equipment is typically used during this stage to recreate the traffic accident. The investigators may also inspect each vehicle beyond the damage it has suffered. Checking components like brakes, steering, tires, suspension, and lights may shed light on the cause of the traffic accident.
Traffic accident investigators reconstruct collisions for several reasons. The most important and yet more subtle reasons for looking into significant collisions is to identify any environmental factors that may have been a primary contributor to the collision. This may prevent additional collisions at a certain location from causing further injuries or fatalities. They are often the most easily and quickly remedied. Another benefit for examining these collisions is to identify any safety concerns in vehicles for equipment or structural failures. Although this prevents further unwarranted injuries or fatalities, these are less common and more difficult to see through to the end. Lastly, there is the investigation to determine fault or liability.
Often in vehicle collisions, the events can be foreseen, although not always observed. They can certainly be explained, and liability assigned. This happens daily in every city. In order to explain how an event occurred and why, a reconstructionists must seek causation. In doing so, contributing factors need to be considered in determining causation. These factors may include driver behaviors, environmental factors, and vehicular factors.
Once a roadway hazard is perceived by a driver, the driver reacts to the hazard, and physics takes over. There are one of two outcomes as a result. There is a collision or a collision avoidance. In the case of a collision, there is a multitude of factors that affect the outcome of the impact. The investigator must consider acceleration, braking, speed, friction, and direction, energy and momentum, all of which must be carefully analyzed. An effective reconstructionist has the unique ability and fortitude to compute many of these factors based on roadway evidence, scaled measurements, and sometimes recorded data.
Traffic Accident Reconstructionists are uniquely trained to take the investigation further into causation factors. Investigators consider many factors prior to and after the collision, as well as, being trained to meticulously explain the details of a collision itself, where more events occur in 1/10th of a second than most can imagine.
For example, in a scenario where two vehicles collide at an intersection, a reconstructionist is interested in the pre-collision events. Where were the drivers traveling from? Where was their intended destination? What was their frame of mind at time of departure? What do the cell phone records reveal prior to the collision? In addition, and all too often, were the driver’s intoxicated?
Once these questions can be answered, the next issue at hand is the scene of the collision.
Hopefully, this is where the responding police department has protected the scene for preservation of evidence and, subsequently, conducted a thorough investigation by obtaining all possible witness statements, marked any and all roadway evidence, and successfully measured the scene using a total station or other scene mapping equipment. These and others are all vital requirements for a successful private practice reconstructionist to review the case and identify any factors that may be important to a civil or criminal case. One rule to keep in mind is there is very seldom evidence not tampered with from bystanders or other emergency personnel whose primary job is not to preserve evidence but save lives.
While reviewing the results of the investigation or revisiting a scene, a reconstructionist must look for environmental factors such as was the sun at a position to blind a driver’s view, are there trees or other objects blocking a view of traffic, was the traffic regulating equipment working properly. We can then begin to look at the roadway makeup and condition at the time of the collision. Another factor to consider is contributing vehicle factors by the units involved. Are there any vehicle recalls and have the repairs been completed by an approved mechanic? Have there been any recent collisions that may have caused prior damage to a vehicle that made this specific wreck worse than it should have been? Was the vehicles equipment operating properly at the time of the collision?
In addition to these telling details is the vehicle damage. There is a very accurate story told by the damage that often cannot be altered. The principle direction of force (or PDOF) will fold a vehicles exterior in the direction the collision occurred.
Traffic Accident Reconstructionists can also tell which lights were on during a collision, even if they are off once the collision occurs (an affect called “hot shock”).
In the case of law enforcement investigations, often a driver who wishes to avoid the fact that he was driving can be identified by a foot print left on a brake or accelerator pedal. A Traffic Accident Reconstructionist must look at how law enforcement identified a person as the driver so appropriate liability can be assigned.
Why hire an ACTAR accredited reconstructionist?
ACTAR is a term frequently seem when looking for a Traffic Accident Reconstructionist. So exactly what is an ACTAR accredited reconstructionist? ACTAR is an acronym for the Accreditation Commission for Traffic Accident Reconstruction, an internationally recognized commission with more than 1260 ACTAR Accredited Reconstructionists practicing throughout the United States, Canada, Australia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.
From their website, ACTAR was founded by and exists for the benefit of the traffic accident investigation and reconstruction community, as represented by the membership of the participating professional organizations.
Since its incorporation in 1991, it has been the ongoing goal to promote, within the legal and scientific community, a recognition of the minimum standards established by the NHTSA study, as well as those developed by an ongoing review of the latest technology and trends in the profession.
Minimum standards have been designed to advance the recognition of the ACTAR accreditation program, and to encourage the integrity, consistency and professionalism of those involved. ACTAR aims to promote the professional and intellectual development of those individuals, organizations and institutions involved in traffic accident investigation and reconstruction and to assist the legal and scientific community in weighing the suitability of individuals offering their services as Traffic Accident Reconstructionists.
So how does a Traffic Accident Reconstructionist become accredited?
A reconstructionist must apply to the commission and meet minimum standards of education and experience. If the standards are met, the reconstructionist must successfully complete a practical and a theoretical examination to be accredited.
The examination consists of two parts, a Theory portion and a Practical portion. The Theory portion consists of 75 questions drawn from areas such as Kinetic Energy, Conservation of Momentum, Time-Distance Evaluations, Physical Evidence from the road and vehicle, Photography, Lamp Analysis and Airborne Analysis.
The Practical portion is a staged collision where the candidate is supplied with photographs of the scene and involved vehicles, vehicle data and damages, location and type of physical evidence and a skeleton diagram. The candidate is asked to provide impact and departure speeds, angles, Delta-V for each vehicle and identify specific physical evidence.
Although participation in the accreditation program is voluntary, people who are properly trained and experienced in Traffic accident investigation and reconstruction can successfully complete the examination and achieve accreditation. Those accredited must obtain a minimum number of continuing educational units (CEUs) over a five-year period from completion of the initial examination to maintain their status with ACTAR.
An ACTAR accredited reconstructionist has demonstrated their training and knowledge before a peer group organization and must maintain a high level of training and experience top become accredited and to maintain their accreditation.
By hiring an ACTAR accredited reconstructionist, one is assured that the individual follows the highest standards of training and the ACTAR Code of Conduct to provide an unbiased, efficient and compete traffic accident reconstruction available.
Mj Investigations, LLC. offers an ACTAR accredited reconstructionist (ACTAR #1084) with over 35 years of experience. Accredited since the year 2000, Mj Investigations Traffic Accident Reconstructionist will provide the training and experience of investigating and reconstructing thousands of traffic accidents in five states and providing expert testimony.
As you can see, a solid collision investigation can fill a large file of detailed reporting by someone who has received the proper training and has obtained the right experience for the needs of a client. Mj Investigations, LLC investigators have responded on scene to thousands of collisions, many fatal, and have had the unique opportunity to observe the evidence minutes after the collision has occurred. Mj Investigations, LLC investigators have law enforcement backgrounds, experienced in civil depositions and testimony, as well as, successful criminal cases.
A physicist or an engineer can calculate data or explain the damage to vehicles based on principles and graphs, but Traffic Accident Reconstructionist have the first-hand experience that gives clients the edge in a successful case. Mj Investigations, LLC training has come from nationally prominent authorities in the field of traffic accident reconstructions and investigations and our experience has come through being at the scene of every type of incident our clients may incur from single vehicle to a passenger car vs. commercial vehicle. If there is a need for commercial vehicle inspections, Mj Investigations, LLC is able to provide them when needed for an investigation at varying levels. In addition, Mj Investigations, LLC has the availability to image event data recorders to obtain collision information such as seat-belt use, braking indicators, speed, airbag deployment, and much more.
The term “Drag Factor” is utilized in traffic accident reconstruction. This term is not mentioned in engineering mechanics or physics books. Drag Factor is the deceleration coefficient for an entire vehicle. The Coefficient of Friction is the deceleration coefficient for a sliding tire. The Drag Factor and Coefficient of Friction are the same, if and only if, all four tires on a motor vehicle are locked and sliding on a level surface.
For years police officers have been taught these two terms were the same thing and for the sake of simplicity, we will use the terms interchangeably and say they mean the same thing for the purpose of this discussion. In this article, the drag factor, or coefficient of friction, basically measures the stickiness of a surface such as a roadway, a grass knoll, a ditch, and the like.
So why does an accident investigator need to know what the drag factor of a roadway surface is and how do they use it? Each surface has its own drag factor, which will determine how quickly a vehicle can come to a stop and how far it will travel while doing so. This answers the question; “How fast were they going?” Probably the most common question heard when an accident investigator is retained for a case.
In an accident investigation, this stickiness of a surface is assigned a number and is denoted with an f. Drag factors can be determined a number of ways. The use of tables and charts published by accident-investigation authorities, and based on thousands of tests, is the most common. These charts have been validated in court and are used worldwide. They are available from a number of sources, both in print and online.
The use of a drag sled is also common. A drag sled is basically a box that is a known weight; it is pulled at a known force, and the drag factor of the surface can be calculated. These devices can be purchased premade, or they can be made by the investigator.
A skid test using a similar vehicle, if possible, can be completed. The vehicle is driven at a known speed, and then a hard-braking maneuver is completed to obtain skid marks. These skid marks are measured, and a drag factor can be calculated.
Various scientific instruments (for example, the VC-3000) can be used to determine the drag factor of a roadway surface. These devices began in the research field and the drag racing world and can be purchased for about $1,500.
Knowing the coefficient of friction of a roadway is important as this factor will affect the accuracy of the speed calculation. Let’s take a simple example of a vehicle sliding on the roadway. The vehicle left 4 skid marks that were measured and an average skid of 200 feet was determined. The investigator presumed the roadway was new asphalt and decided it had a coefficient of friction of 0.8 by using the standard chart of coefficient of friction for various roadway surfaces. Using the basic slide to stop formula and the investigator’s coefficient of friction the minimum speed is calculated at 69.2 MPH.
It was later determined the roadway was actually, Portland cement that was over 10 years old and heavily traffic polished. Portland cement that I traffic polished has a coefficient of friction of around 0.55. Using this coefficient of friction the minimum speed is calculated at 57.4 MPH. A difference of aboout 12 MPH.
There are additioanl variables that will affect the calcualtions but this article is not about speed calculations. The investigator must keep this in mind and remember that an accurate coefficent of friction, or drag factor, is important when trying to determine how fast a vehicle was traveling prior to a traffic accident.
Tire marks are probably the most often confused and misinterpreted of all roadway evidence. A tire mark is the general class of marks left by a tire, whether rolling or locked. A skid mark is left by a locked, sliding tire.
There are different types of tire marks associated with a traffic accident investigation. The most common a private investigator will observe are:
Skid marks are further identified in the following ways:
The proper identification of tire marks is an important part of an accident investigation. Each tire mark is produced by a specific action of the vehicle during the traffic accident event. Tire marks can tell the private investigator about what a driver did or attempted to do prior to and after a collision. A point-of-impact (POI) or an area-of-impact (AOI) can determined which is an extremely important part of the traffic accident investigation.
The proper interpretation of tire marks can tell the private investigator which, of the many, speed calculation formula to be used. For example, a vehicle left a 150-foot tire mark on a paved roadway prior to running off the road. If the tire mark is identified as a yaw mark and the specific formula for that type of mark is used, a speed calculation of 48 mph is determined. That same mark if identified as a straight skid will yield a speed of 56 mph. An 8-mph difference may not mean much unless the posted speed limit is 40 mph.
Once in the realm of science fiction, it seemed incredible that a vehicle would be able to “see” other vehicles or pedestrians, anticipate collisions, automatically apply the brakes or take corrective steering actions and even drive itself. But this advanced technology is becoming increasingly available and more cars can do this to some degree.
Some of these systems have been around for a few years, mostly on high-end luxury cars. Collision-avoidance systems are getting better and are rapidly becoming a standard addition to new cars and not just a high-end option.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) has added collision-avoidance system testing to its suite of safety evaluations. They have determined that some of these collision-avoidance systems could prevent or mitigate many crashes. To win a top overall safety score, a car needs to have a forward-collision warning system with automatic braking and any autobrake system has to function effectively in formal track tests. To view the test results or to check if a vehicle has collision-avoidance systems available, visit the IIHS website at: www.iihs.org/iihs/ratings/crash-avoidance-features.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is considering making some collision-avoidance systems mandatory. NHTSA’s 5-Star Safety Ratings note which systems are available on cars they crash-test but their presence doesn’t affect the rating. The cost of collision-avoidance systems can still be an obstacle with most advanced systems being part of a large options package or on a model’s higher, more expensive trim versions. The options can add thousands of dollars to a vehicle’s price.
Lasers, Radar, and Cameras
These active safety systems rely on numerous sensors, cameras, lasers, and short- and long-range radar which monitor what is going on around the vehicle. Other vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists, as well as the vehicle itself and even road signs are all monitored. Data is processed by computers, which then prompt an action from the car or the driver. These actions may start with attention-grabbers, such as a beep, a flashing dashboard icon, a tug from the seatbelt, or a vibration in the seat or steering wheel and if the driver doesn’t respond, the more advanced systems then apply partial or full braking force. Research has found that when a warning system emits too many inappropriate alerts, then there is temptation to switch it off.
Not every system on the market today is top-notch. But there’s a net benefit regardless. Even if the systems fail to prevent a crash, that crash is going to be less severe than it would have been otherwise. These systems can prevent crashes from happening in the first place.
Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC)
ACC allows the driver to select the cruise control speed and following gap. ACC detects if there is a vehicle in your path and either accelerate or brakes to maintain the selected following distance. If ACC cannot apply sufficient braking because of approaching a vehicle too rapidly, ACC will alert the driver.
Rear cross-traffic alert
Cross-traffic alert warns you of traffic approaching from the sides as you reverse. The warning usually consists of an audible chirp and a visual cue in either the outside mirror or the rear camera’s dash display. The more advanced systems can also pick out bicycles and pedestrians.
Forward-collision warning (FCW) and autobrake
Also called a pre-crash warning system, these systems warn drivers of an impending collision by using visual, auditory, or physical cues. Most vehicle systems also pre-charge the brakes and take other steps to prepare for impact. If the driver ignores the warnings, systems with autonomous braking, or autobrake, will apply partial or full braking force. They can be active at anywhere from walking to highway speeds.
Blind-spot monitoring (BSM) and assist
A blind-spot monitoring system uses radars or cameras to scan the areas beside and behind you, looking for vehicles entering or lurking in your blind zones. When such a vehicle is detected, an illuminated icon appears in or near the appropriate side-view mirror. If you signal a turn while a car is in your blind zone, some systems send a stronger alert, such as a blinking light or louder chirps. More advanced systems help keep you in your own lane by applying the
brakes on one side of the vehicle.
Pedestrian detection and braking
Pedestrian detection can recognize a person straying into a vehicle’s path. Some will automatically apply the brakes and newer systems can also detect bicyclists.
As you turn the steering wheel adaptive headlights will swivel, which helps illuminate the road when going around curves. Adaptive headlights improve a drivers’ reaction times by about a third of a second, just enough to avoid hitting a parked car or animal on a dark road.
Lane departure warning (LDW) and assist LDW
These systems use a camera, along with various sensors, to identify lane markers and monitor your distance from them. If you stray over the line without signaling, you’ll hear a warning tone, an LDW warning in the instrument panel or perhaps a physical alert like a vibration in the steering wheel or seat.
Lane departure warning does not provide a warning to help avoid a cash unless it detects the lane markings. More advanced “lane keeping assist” (LKA) systems selectively apply brakes or nudge the steering to guide you back if you’re wandering.
Automatic park assist
The system will identify a parallel or perpendicular parking space your car can fit into. Once found, the system steers the car into the space; some can also exit from parallel parking
spaces. The driver still does the braking and has to follow commands from the system.
Rear cameras and parking assist
Rear-view cameras will be mandatory with the 2018 model year. They can help prevent a back-over accident, such as hitting a child who wanders behind your car. Parking assist sensor systems notify you with progressively louder and quicker beeps as you close in on an obstacle.
Knowing what collision-avoidance systems a vehicle may have and what they are designed to do is within the realm of the private investigator. Due to the growing list of collision-avoidance systems the investigator must consider this advanced technology as part of their investigation. By researching the vehicle involved, the investigator can determine the type of systems a vehicle is equipped with. Understanding what the systems are designed to do can assist the investigator in discovering other factors involved in a traffic accident. These questions can become important for the client or the attorney.
Questions for the investigator to consider include:
The investigator can check the IIHS website: www.iihs.org/iihs/ratings/crash-avoidance-features or contact the local vehicle manufacture dealership to get information about the systems a vehicle may have and what they are supposed to do.
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A picture is worth a thousand words. This is especially true in a traffic accident investigation. Photographing the scene of a traffic accident is probably the second most requested task that a private investigator will receive from a client. An important part of accident investigation is recording information so that it can be used later. Photography is an indispensable means of achieving this.
Photographs are employed in two ways; to create a permanent, accurate, unbiased record of something specifically observed by an investigator and to capture the detailed appearance of something such as a mark on the road or damage to a vehicle. Photographs may later reveal significant details that were not observed at the time the picture was made.
Obtain the police photographs, if any, and then ask yourself: what should I photograph? Remember, your photographs need to tell a story. We are a highly visual society, and people have a difficult time understanding complex actions and ideas without something to look at to help them understand. This is especially true with juries. Think of what the story is and how you would explain it to a jury using only the picture you took.
If you know, either by measurements or police photographs, the final position of the vehicles or bodies, photograph their positions at final rest. Include recognizable landmarks that help identify the location of the accident. The driver and witness points of view established what they saw or could have seen based on the surrounding visibility. Attempt to locate the point-of-impact (POI) and photograph its location and the views to and from that point. Utilizing an overhead view or map can assist with locating their position. Have the witness mark their location on the map which will assist with establishing their point of view.
If you are photographing the vehicles at a tow yard, use a minimum of the four-corner approach. This captures all sides of the vehicle, for a complete exterior view. If you can gain access to all sides of the vehicle and the interior, take additional shots. Work systematically, moving circularly around the vehicle. Photograph the front and the back, especially the license plate. Don’t overlook the VIN plate or NADAR sticker to identify the vehicle. Take interior shots, especially if you are trying to show the damage and how it relates to the occupants. Watch for sharp edges when completing interior shots.
On scene, take photographs of the approach path of each vehicle to include sight lines and any obstructions, temporary or permanent. Also take photographs from the advantage points of witnesses. If taking close-up shots of vehicles or evidence, take a pull-back shot so the close-up shot can be orientated to the pull-back shot; use a ruler or other object of known size to orient the evidence by size.
What kind of camera should you use? This depends on what you plan to use it for. The more technical the work, the more high-end your camera should be. Digital cameras of at least 10 megapixels are best. A quality digital camera can be purchased for as little as $50, and you can take as many pictures as you need without worrying about printing costs. Digital cameras also provide instant viewing, either through the screen or by downloading photographs to a laptop. There is nothing worse than taking a huge number of photographs and then finding out you have no film in the camera or the pictures are out of focus. You can also take hundreds, if not thousands, of photographs on a single eight gigabyte SD card.
Your camera should have an autofocus function as well as a manual focus. Auto-focus is good for that quick shot you need to quickly take before a truck runs you over. Manual focus helps you get the close-up shot without the auto-focus locking in on something in the background. Most digital cameras have a zoom feature. Zoom is good for focusing on small items such as tears, hair, blood spatter, and so on. A macro feature is also good for focusing on those small items.
Automatic focusing is not ideal when taking nighttime photographs. A good flash, either external or part of the camera, is also useful to have, but watch for washout caused by the flash hitting a reflective surface. Flash is also good for highlighting detail in a shot. Nighttime photography is difficult, at best. A high-quality camera with a high-quality external flash is best for nighttime shots. With an external flash and a sturdy tripod, an investigator can “paint the scene” with the flash. Watch for reflective surfaces or bright lights and objects in the background. Auto focus will try to focus on these and your main object will be blurry.
Point-and-shoot cameras and auto-focus are good for most photographs you take on a scene. But learn the basics of manual operation of your camera. Knowing how to manually access the settings on your camera will provide quality photographs of the scene that can be used in your case. Learn the “exposure triangle” and how the ISO, aperture, and shutter speed affect one another.
I highly recommend taking a photography class. There are a number of classes, both in person or online, that readily available and most are very inexpensive or free. Professional instruction will help with the proper methods for taking quality evidentiary shots. A quality camera and tripod are a necessity and foremost, know how to use your camera before you go to the scene. Many investigators have arrived on a scene and try to learn how to use their camera while they are there. Make sure your camera battery is charged and have a spare battery. Choose a camera without internal memory. Instead, use quality SD cards and have a backup to your back-up when the pictures are downloaded. Caution should be exercised if you use a cell phone, as it can be taken as evidence, and that includes everything on it.
If you are using a video camera as part of the scene photography, be aware of the audio portion. Watch what is said by either you or your assistants. Make sure people are not in the shot unless it is necessary and no horseplay, as that embarrassing part may be seen by a jury.
If you have any doubt if something should be photographed, take the picture. As with measurements, it is better to have too many and not need them than to have too few and need them. Practice, practice, and practice. Try taking pictures of different objects at different angles or distances. Use the manual settings to discovery how they will improve your picture taking. Use different light sources and from different angles. Imagine what you will need to photograph at a traffic accident scene and take pictures before you need to complete a set of photographs for a client.
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