Accident Scenes & Police Reports
By: Patrick Sundby, Accident Investigator
Specializing in Low Speed and Catastrophic Crashes
There is a myriad of questions which centered around accident scenes and police reports. We will address why reports exist, how conclusions are made, and what you should take away from a report and the role of the police officer as an investigator. This topic can be broken down into a lot of different categories; here we will focus on general reporting and collision analysis.
Why do police take general reports? The most brutal answer is because no one will remember the details in two days, much less two years and they will argue it constantly; but it’s also because society needs a third party who should be an impartial fact evaluator. “Should” is emphasized, but we need to describe what an impartial evaluator of fact is in the context of this writing. Within this definition we are assuming the officer / deputy has sufficient training to determine what evidence plays into the case. Imagine if you went to a call for domestic assault between a husband and wife. Upon arrival the wife tells you the husband is using drugs and sexually assaulting a young child. When you question the husband he denies the claim and has the wife’s prescription bottle in his hand – the medication’s listed side effect is “hallucinations”. This is important relevant evidence the law enforcement officer should weigh in his or her decision.
We are also going to assume the officer / deputy has no bias or stereotype towards the parties involved OR they do but recognize it and adjust accordingly. Imagine if the officer from above is female and just went through a difficult divorce. Does her personal life have an impact on believing the husband? If it does, what does should she do about it?
Police write collision reports for the state (in which they operate) departments of transportation. The report is designed to collect information regarding roadway design, operator error, alcohol and /or drug use, etc. While important, one of the last concerns is for the report to document for the parties involved the specifics of the event.
With utilizing report templates, experience, training, and bias can significantly affect collision reports. Why?
There are many reasons police have errors in their reports, but by far, the main reason is lack of training. In order to make a police officer, candidates attend an academy which averages six months, some are longer. Typically, collision investigation for basic recruit training is less than a day’s worth of training. In this time the instructor needs to cover everything from scene security to traffic patterns to general hazards. Most training doesn’t include: skid mark interpretation, speed calculations, principle direction of force, drag factors, etc. In fact, unless the student after graduation and long into his or her career chooses to attend further training there will be no updates, refreshers, revisions, or continuations to the academy foundation.
Specialty training is necessary to understand the concepts and the physics behind a motor vehicle collision and these are not part of the basic academy curriculum. Therefore, when determining causality and/or specifics of the accident it is critical to ascertain the extent of training of the police officer.
To address the last point, what you should take away from a collision report, we will discuss a real case brought to me by one of you.
A while back I was contacted by a doctor, his family member was involved in a collision where she was rear ended by a truck in heavy traffic; twice. The family member told the investigating officer their vehicle was established in a lane of travel with the truck behind it. The truck then struck the vehicle while in traffic twice. The truck driver told the investigating officer he didn’t know where the vehicle he struck was, but he was coming onto the highway via an “on ramp” and thought the vehicle attempted to pass him in the shoulder and cut in front of him which is why he struck it.
The investigating officer acknowledged there were no marks in the roadway to establish where the event occurred but he did write the report in favor of the truck driver. When I inquired about his reasoning and his background he informed me:
“I wrote the report in favor of the truck driver based on the damage to the vehicles although I had no formal training on damage interpretation and event correlation and could not establish through evidence, where the vehicles were in the lanes of travel.” While the gut reaction is to blame the officer, in this case the municipality who employs him is the root problem. This agency has failed to train the officer and provide him guidelines to work within.
All that can be taken away from the crash itself is the truck rear ended the vehicle and it likely occurred as the vehicle driver described where the truck driver admitted not knowing where the vehicle was to begin with.
So what do you take away from a police collision report? Only those facts which can be verified by witness, corroborated evidence, or soundly concluded by the two. The police are fact gatherers, not “causality arbiters” and should be utilized as such. The caveat is there are police experts who have advanced training in accident investigation, crash dynamics and accident reconstruction. My training lends me to be expert in all of those fields, but the average police officer is not and should not be considered as one.
Patrick Sundby has decades of experience in the automotive industry including several years in law enforcement collision investigation. He has also been a driver training and firearms instructor in law enforcement and a police officer for 9 years before specializing in accident investigations. He has had the privilege of participating in both learning and teaching at Prince William County Criminal Justice Training Academy in Virginia and studied at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia. His specialty is low speed and catastrophic crashes and has testified over 500 times at various level. He can be reached at 571-265-8076 firstname.lastname@example.org