Did it need 27-years to find this submerged vehicle? Better investigator training could make a difference.

A boy who used a GoPro camera to detect a submerged vehicle at an undisclosed location near Revelstoke British Columbia this summer has been praised for his detective work. Unfortunately the body of a female occupant was found in the vehicle and further investigation by police indicates that she disappeared about 27 years earlier. Although the specific location of the incident was not disclosed, it was described as being “just 10 feet off the side of the TransCanada Highway”. That information is revealing in itself.

An area of water was located just 10 feet, 3 metres, or about 3 large steps from Canada’s national highway. The TransCanada highway should receive a higher level of design than lesser highways. Any areas of water 3 steps from the edge of the highway should warrant the installation of barriers that would reduce the chance that a vehicle could enter the water. Twenty-seven years ago would place the date of the collision at around 1992 and there were sufficient roadway design and maintenance standards that would have addressed the need for a barrier.

But we also need to consider why the submerged vehicle was never located earlier and what police efforts were involved during the woman’s disappearance. What is not appreciated by the general public, and less experienced investigators, is that the observation of damaged vehicles on, or near, a roadway is not the only way that investigators can determine that a collision has occurred. Even without the presence of damaged vehicles the existence of various evidence on the road surface and on the side of the road is available to the investigator who has sufficient skill to interpret that evidence. If investigators receive the proper training in the detection and interpretation of physical evidence they can become substantially better at what they do.

Many motor vehicle collision reconstruction schools focus on speed calculation particularly because this is the focus of many legal proceedings. They believe that the importance of documenting evidence such as tire marks is primarily for their use in laying charges. So differences in acceleration, braking and rotation (yaw) marks is often taught so the investigator can calculate speed. However that is a narrow understanding of what collision reconstruction should entail. The lack of training in the detection and interpretation of physical evidence beyond speed calculation is a crucial lacking in most schools and in the abilities of many investigators.

As in any facets of life, the more familiarity one gains in a work environment the better are the skills of the worker. But only if the worker is willing, is given the opportunity and is given a reason why they should expand their knowledge. Knowledge of their work environment beyond the routine of what they always do. So a window washer can become ever more skilled at window washing, and may develop new procedures that could improve the performance of future window washers. And we could go on with examples of any areas of life where a development of skills is dependent on the individual, his or her opportunity, and the reasoning given to them as to why they should learn something more.

In the field of motor vehicle collision investigation and reconstruction the situation is no different. In order for a reconstructionist or investigator to become good at what they do they need some basic skills and abilities such as diligence, curiosity, persistence, and the ability to develop questions that less-qualified persons would not be capable of asking.

After that basic skill comes the “opportunity”: a situation where the work environment provides the reconstructionist/investigator with the opportunity to learn and expand their breadth of knowledge. There are hundreds of thousands of police officers who are asked to fill out standard police reports for their local jurisdictions and those forms are basically “fill-in-the-blanks”, check-boxes, where little investigation is required or requested. Such police officers could spend a career filling out these boxes without developing an interest in the background of what they do because they are not given the opportunity to expand their knowledge. Eventually their superiors assignment them to a more interesting area such as criminal investigation and a new recruit takes the place of the old, re-learning how to fill-in the codes of the standard police report.

On the other hand a smaller number of police personnel are delivered to a specialized “Collision Reconstruction Unit” where they are assigned for training with more experienced members of the force in areas where the importance is placed on laying charges. Speed, driver distraction, alcohol impairment, anything to do with laying charges. But again, that is not a full development of an individual to become a true specialist, it only develops a narrow range of the individual’s skills and experience. After a police “reconstructionist” becomes relatively good at what he/she does they are re-assigned and their experience and training is lost. The logic still remains in the police community that collision reconstruction can be “picked-up” in a matter of a couple of years once the officer becomes familiar with basic speed calculations or how to interpret the contents of the data in an event data recorder (“black box”).

The third aspect of the development of a collision reconstructionist is the “reasoning” for pursuing further knowledge and expertise. This could be given in the work environment or it could be developed as a need in one’s own self. Again, using the police example, superiors could instill in the individual the need to become expert at the broad range of investigation and analysis. A superior who is worth being placed in their position will understand the importance of personnel development and the retention of experts who will stay a long time in their field.

Having discussed the development of the expert reconstructionist in a philosophical sense, we can turn to the very specifics of what could be accomplished by referring back to the case of the submerged vehicle that was found by the boy with the GoPro camera. Could the vehicle have been found earlier? Let’s look at the issue of roadway evidence as the basis for our argument that improved skills through training and experience can make a difference.

While reconstruction schools discuss the physical evidence on a roadway from the impacts of vehicles, loss-of-control evidence is rarely given much focus. Certainly students will be given the opportunity to recognize the difference between a straight and black skid mark and the curved character of a yaw mark.  Yaw marks are created when vehicles rotate about their vertical axis and are an indicator of loss-of-control. But there are many instances where yaw marks do not lead to impacts and sometimes rotation occurs without any visible indication of a yaw mark. In the modern age of sophisticated electronic stability control (ESC), vehicle systems can take over to prevent yaw even though the driver may not gain control over the vehicle’s direction of travel. This is exemplified by observations in old times where a vehicle striking a tree with its front end was quite likely to involve a suicide, yet in current times, when ESC prevents yaw, we can no longer be so certain.

By studying the details of tire marks and other evidence that exists, regardless of whether they are related to a specific collision, a student can become proficient at understanding the meaning of that evidence. Many times it is not just the evidence caused by the striking vehicles that needs to be understood. Tire marks on gravel shoulders from emergency personnel and from witnesses is often left at a collision site but it is rarely examined since it is viewed as “unrelated”. But that may not be the case. Evidence related to unknown vehicles may shed light on the occurrence of a collision, or any crime scene.

When a reconstructionist or investigator becomes proficient at detecting and recognizing the meaning of tire marks outside the realm of vehicle collisions then he or she can become more valuable in detecting certain conditions or incidents that may not be obvious. Tire marks  detected on a roadside that may pass through brush and eventually into a body of water could make the difference between finding a submerged or sinking vehicle when it is still possible to save a life, versus finding it 27 years later.  The characteristics of tire marks that may not catch the attention of an average observer can be very revealing to the investigator who knows what he or she is looking at.

We have often heard the phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Well, in the detection and identification of evidence, there is a similar phrase: “Visibility is in the mind of the beholder”. In the “illustrious” careers of many liars in the legal community there has always been the argument that visibility is obvious. “Simply look at the photo your honor and it is simple to determine whether the evidence was there”. But that is not the case. Visibility to a layman is not the same as visibility to a well-trained and experienced expert. Many settlers of the North American west hired “indian scouts” just because they were skilled at detecting and identifying evidence that was crucial to their survival. The evidence was always there it was just not visible because it required the trained and experienced mind to “see” that evidence.

To illustrate our point, a series photos will be shown below taken over a period of about 6 months, from March to September, 2019. These show a view of a gravel shoulder. First are a series of two photos taken on September 5th. The first view is looking south. Our question is this: Is a tire mark visible in this photo?

Is a tire mark present on the gravel shoulder of this view taken on September 5, 2019?

Perhaps the answer would be no. But then we reverse the view as shown in the next photo below, also taken on September 5, 2019. Is there a tire mark visible in this second photo?

This is a view looking north. Is a tire mark present on the shoulder in this view taken on September 5, 2019?

Well, it would appear that perhaps an aged tire mark is visible, or perhaps two tire marks? What would happen if we went backwards in time by about one month? The next two photos were taken on August 7, 2019.

View looking north on August 7th. Is a tire mark visible on the shoulder?

Well, suddenly, the tire mark (or two tire marks) no longer seems to be visible even though this photo was taken about one month backwards in time and one would think the marks would be fresher. The photo below is on the same day, August 7th but looking south.

View looking south on August 7, 2019. Is a tire mark visible?

The tire mark(s) is (perhaps) no longer visible? Yet it appeared to be visible a month later. Let us go back another month to July, as shown in the two photos below.

View looking north of the tire mark(s) in July 11, 2019.

View, looking south, at the tire mark(s) on July 11, 2019.

Perhaps the view in July looking north, provides a visible indication of a tire mark similar to what was visible in September. Yet the southbound view of July does not appear to be as conclusive. It might be said that, if someone was given the photograph of the south view of July, on its own without any other views, a person might conceivably say that they could not detect a tire mark. Now let us go back in time another month to June 25, 2019, as shown in the two photos below.

View, looking north, of the tire mark(s) on June 25, 2019.

View, looking south, of the tire mark(s) on June 25, 2019.

Now do we see any tire marks? Maybe we do. Certainly someone may be able to detect some disturbance in the gravel shoulder in both photos. But still one could easily appreciate that someone might say, no, there are no visible tire marks. So Let us go back in time again to May 7, 2019. But now we see the views under wet conditions.

View, looking north, of the tire mark(s) on May 7, 2019.

View, looking south, of the tire mark(s) on May 7, 2019.

Suddenly, with the change in weather conditions, the tire marks that did not appear to be as obvious are now quite obvious. The water has helped by filling in the depressions that were created by the tire marks and thus has outlined them from the rest of the shoulder. So our mind has been able to use these clues to make the marks visible to our mind.

Let us now go backward in time another month, to April 11, 2019, as shown in the two photos below. Now we do not have the help of the wet conditions to visualize what is on the shoulder.

View, looking northbound, at tire marks on April 11, 2019.

View, looking southbound, of tire marks, taken on April 11, 2019.

Are the tire marks visible in these photos of April 11th? One would probably conclude that someone could detect that two tire marks exist.

Let us go back another month, to March 11, 2019. Once again the two photos below were taken in wet conditions and there is also some ice mixed in. Not only are the tire marks visible but one might be able to look at their characteristics and detect certain  features such as tread patterns and evidence of upheaval along some portions of each mark.

View, looking north, at the tire marks taken on March 11, 2019.

View, looking south, at the tire marks taken on March 11, 2019.

Thus these photos of March 11th bring us closer to the date when they were formed. By noting that certain features exist within the marks, and with some knowledge of how quickly these features might deteriorate, we might come to an understanding of when the marks were created. The overlap of one mark on top of the other might give us some clue as to which mark was created first. The features might tell us whether the two tire marks were created by a single vehicle or by two, independent vehicles. If the marks were caused by a single vehicle we might note which one was the front wheel and which was the rear. We might come to understand whether the vehicle had come to a stop or whether it produced the marks during a continued motion. We might come to know whether the vehicle was a front or rear wheel drive. We might come to know whether there was acceleration or braking or both along the length of the marks. And so on…

These actions of detecting and interpreting the meaning of physical evidence represents the “archeological” aspect of collision reconstruction. The skill in applying these actions does not come from the schools where police-based reconstructionists gain their training in speed calculations based on the laws of physics. They can come from training by a person with a deep and long-standing familiarity with physical evidence who can give students a jump start in the field. No different than the professor in archeology who teaches his/her craft. But most often it must come from the reconstructionist’s long career in being exposed to the evidence, with a willingness and interest in understanding it, and being given the opportunity to grow that knowledge.

Referring back to the boy with his GoPro, anyone with the right equipment who is placed in the right circumstances can identify something meaningful without any special training.  But it takes the training and development of certain skills in order to use them when they are needed. Much like a blind man who stumbles into a tree a number of times before he decides to use a cane. The blind man then intensifies his senses of smell, hearing and and tactile experiences at his feet such that he can know about the likely location of the tree without actually seeing it. While the boy with the GoPro found the submerged vehicle (and deceased) it was rather late and thus of minimal benefit. What we would want see is a person who, driving along a road, detects the presence of tire marks leading away from the road surface and understands that the character of these tire marks indicates that a vehicle recently left the roadway without actually seeing the vehicle. Such an ability might cause that driver to stop, examine the area, and locate the sinking vehicle while there is still an opportunity to save a life. This  driver could be a trained and experienced police investigator.