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.
Crash Dynamics and Accident Reconstruction Q & A's
By: Patrick Sundby, Accident Investigator
Specializing in Low Speed and Catastrophic Crashes
1. “How do airbags work and why do they deploy in some cases and not others.”
Almost all airbag equipped vehicles contain an airbag control module. The module monitors various vehicle systems and has a predetermined threshold for deployment; in simpler terms, this means the collision has to meet certain settings to deploy an airbag. While each car brand’s system is specifically different from the next the concept is the same.
The module constantly monitors a vehicles speed and when a collision occurs the module can tell the change in speed is happening faster than if the car was slowing by brakes alone. IF the collision, as calculated by the module, is extreme enough it will deploy the appropriate airbag(s). The module has the final say in why an airbag is deployed, this is truly vehicle specific as well as module software & hardware dependent.
The module can knows, via onboard accelerometers, of changes in the vehicles direction and speed. The module constantly calculates these changes and when it “sees” a change beyond preset thresholds it begins to monitor, very closely, the changes (this is called algorithm enablement). If it determines the changes meet the criteria for airbag deployment it will deploy the appropriate airbag(s).
Many vehicles also have failsafe sensors mounted in the vehicle which are designed as a secondary mechanical and/or electrical triggering system. These sensors are mounted on the front of the vehicle, usually under the radiator, when crushed or damaged they force an airbag deployment.
Occasionally, someone will ask if how a vehicle knows if a seat is occupied. The driver’s seat is obvious, beyond this, the front passenger seat has a pressure sensor in it which can tell when a predetermined amount of weight is on it, and the rest of the seats use the seatbelt latch (vehicle specific). When you are driving a vehicle the module also monitors the status of seatbelts and the pressure sensors, it uses this data to make the best decision possible about which airbags to deploy and when.
2. I’m often asked about a specialists report, but the most common subset questions are about the lack of support for findings in the report. I have chosen to address this question because it’s of personal & professional interest to me.
“I got this collision expert’s report but there doesn’t appear to be any explanation for his findings, is this normal?”
Yes and No. Yes, this happens; no, it’s not acceptable standard. One of the reasons I have chosen to work with Dr. Studin is his tenacious commitment to research. If you have seen Mark present you know he has scholarly research to back up his points. Mark and his colleagues have been through accredited and standardized training based on a lot of scholarly research. All professional fields of post primary education are all based in accredited & scholarly formal standards.
Collison reconstruction specialists are no different. While not necessary part of an undergraduate or graduate program, the training and education they have is based on the same accredited & scholarly formal training and education - because of this correlation, the same standard should be applied to collision reconstruction specialists. Scholarly research is based on objective methods of testing and investigation, peer review, and rigorous scrutiny before being accepted.
When an expert offers an opinion without citing supporting scholarly documentation it’s not worthless, but rather it stands alone; it is only his opinion. Conversely, when an expert offers and opinion with appropriate supporting scholarly documentation, all the work, expertise, and research is offered with his opinion.
3. Often times an appraisal for repairs is used to justify “low speed” by citing minimal costs. There are a few points regarding them to consider so the question is:
“Is the listed cost on the appraisal an accurate reflection of damage?”
The short easy answer is “no”. The long answer starts with understanding who did the appraisal and what is there background? Usually, appraisers are trained by the insurance company – as such, minimizing the costs and expenses of repair is in the insurance company’s interests. Secondly, most appraisers do not disassemble a vehicle to determine if there is any hidden damage, particularly in low speed collisions.
The next problem is when replacement parts are needed where do they come from? Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) parts cost substantially more than Equal or Like Quality (ELQ) parts, as such, ELQ parts are the preferred choice of insurance companies. It would cost the industry millions more to use OEM parts instead of ELQ parts when making repairs. Along this same line, the quality of paint also varies. Paint manufacturers offer paint systems which will meet the OEM specifications and are very durable paints, however, they also offer more economically friendly paint which is not as durable or closely color matched to the original, and as expected, it costs less.
The last problem to discuss is job downtime. The longer a vehicle is in for repairs the more it costs the insurance company in rental fees. While a shop can, and will, have a minimum amount of time to fix the vehicle the insurance company is going to keep them on this timeframe and constantly press for the vehicle to be completed. Sometimes this drive can create an environment where the repair facility will sacrifice quality of workmanship to complete the job faster for a better profit margin.
The above variables greatly dictate the final number making it too subjective for a reliable point to support the threshold of injury; in other terms, the use of “low cost” as a justification for no injury is not appropriate as no causality relationship exists. If a breakdown of the repair bill is provided, you could objectively price the repair parts and effectively show the bias towards reducing the cost of the repair.