Media accounts of motor vehicle accidents on the flat highways of western Minnesota and North Dakota often end with the sentence, “The investigation is continuing.” What, exactly, does this mean? If the accident scene has been cleaned up, victims are receiving medical care, and the damaged vehicles have been towed away, what is left to investigate? The answer lies in an understanding of the science of forensic engineering or, as many call it, “accident reconstruction.”
The basic purpose of accident reconstruction is to obtain an understanding of how an accident happened, i.e., what factors caused the collision. The investigators begin their work by making a careful visual and physical inventory of the scene. The location of all vehicles is noted, as well as the location of all debris caused by the accident.
The investigators also make careful measurements of visual clues, such as skid marks, the condition of the road surface, damage to signs and other roadside items, and the damage that each vehicle suffered. The investigators will also make a video record of the site, using both still digital cameras and digital video cameras. The final step is interviewing any witnesses and victims if they are able to communicate.
Analysis in the laboratory
Virtually all forensic engineering firms maintain laboratories for detailed examination of damaged vehicles. If necessary, the vehicles in the collision under investigation are taken to the investigator’s laboratory for detailed inspection and measurement. One of the most important post-accident tasks is downloading information from the vehicle’s onboard computer system.
Engineering firms also maintain or have access to extensive data about the ability of various automobiles to resist distortion in an accident. This information, along with measurements made at the scene, can help the investigators determine the speed and direction of each vehicle during the moments prior to the accident and during the accident itself.
Computers have become an essential tool in accident reconstruction. Computers are used to perform the calculations about vehicle speed and direction that form a crucial part of the investigation. Experienced accident attorneys know that computers can also be used to prepare a digital re-recreation of the accident that can, if warranted, be shown to a jury at trial.
Using valuable information in the future
Accident reconstructions have many purposes. Safety officials use the findings to design safer roads and vehicles. As noted, computer renditions of the accident may be an important exhibit if the accident results in a trial.