Two journalists from Aylmer, Ontario working for the Aylmer Express Newspaper were charged with “criminal obstruction of a police officer” in an incident where they were approached by police while taking photographs of a vehicle that had driven off a cliff into Lake Erie on June 23, 2017.
In writing about the incident Gorski Consulting had indicated that an article had been uploaded to the Articles page of the Gorski Consulting website. That information was incorrect. Actually the incident was reported as a news item on the News page of this site. As it may be more difficult to find that news item, we have now uploaded the “article” below including a few typographical corrections made to the original text.
A Study of the Reported Facts Surrounding A Vehicle Driven Off A Cliff During A Police Pursuit in Elgin County Ontario
The officially-reported facts of how a vehicle came to be driven off a cliff into Lake Erie on the afternoon of Friday, June 23, 2017 were described by official news media as follows:
“About 4:30 p.m. Friday, an Elgin County OPP officer began following a vehicle on Springfield Road near Nova Scotia Line. At 4:43 p.m. the officer tried to stop the vehicle. At that point, someone threw a package out the window. The officer stopped to get the package, then searched for the car. A civilian told the officer the vehicle had been driven off the cliff on Springfield Road…”
To appreciate the content of these facts we need to review the area in which these events reportedly occurred. The GoogleMaps view below shows the general area of the City of St Thomas in the upper left, the Town of Aylmer in the upper middle and the north shore of Lake Erie at the bottom.
In the view above, Springfield Road is labelled as Highway 40 and runs north/south (up/down) just to the east (right) of the Town of Aylmer. One can see that Springfield Road does not appear to reach the shore of Lake Erie because it becomes a more secondary road which is gravel-covered thus Google does not display this extension in this larger view.
The view below takes us to a closer view of the area where Springfield Road crosses Nova Scotia Line at the top and we can see the north shore of Lake Erie at the bottom.
One can see that Springfield Road comes to an end just before reaching the north shore of Lake Erie. Note that a measurement taken from Nova Scotia Line indicates that the distance of that intersection to the south terminus of Springfield Road is about 1.3 kilometres. At a speed of 80 km/h (22.2 metres per second) that 1.3 kilometres can be travelled in about 58 seconds whereas at 200 km/h (55.5 metres per second) it can be travelled in about 23.4 seconds.
Next, the view below shows a closer view of the location where Springfield Road ends before reaching the shore of Lake Erie. The view shows the cliff at the lakeshore. It also shows a plowed farm field that lies between the end of the road and the cliff. There appears to be a single residence located on the west side of the terminus of the road.
We can study a further distance, as shown below, from the south end of Springfield Road to the edge of the cliff at Lake Erie. That distance is about 75 metres.
Furthermore we can examine the horizontal distance taken up by the cliff itself, from the top of the cliff to the water’s edge. As noted below the distance is about 45 metres.
So let us summarize the distances. From the point where the vehicle passes through the intersection at Nova Scotia Line it travels about 1.3 kilometres to the end of the road, it then traverses an area of a farm field of about 75 metres, and then it travels a horizontal distance of 45 metres to the water’s edge.
Now let us review the officially-reported information, line by line. The first sentence:
“About 4:30 p.m. Friday, an Elgin County OPP officer began following a vehicle on Springfield Road near Nova Scotia Line“.
The word “on” implies that the vehicle, or the police cruiser, or both, were on Springfield Road at the time of 4:30 p.m. The word “began” would imply that this is where the “following” began and that before that time and location the following had not yet occurred.
So let us consider a reasonable scenario. The vehicle is southbound on Springfield Road and is approaching the intersection with Nova Scotia Line. Behind this vehicle, at some unknown distance, is the Elgin County police cruiser that begins to follow the vehicle. This precise moment is at 4:30 p.m. Let us also consider, for a moment, that the vehicles are travelling at highway speed, say 80 km/h, or 22 metres per second.
The next line reads “At 4:43 p.m. the officer tried to stop the vehicle”. This is where the information starts to break apart with respect to our assumed scenario. The difference in time between 4:30 p.m. and 4:43 p.m. is 13 minutes. What happened in that time of 13 minutes?
Recall that our scenario placed both vehicles “near” the intersection of Springfield Road and Nova Scotia Line at 4:30 p.m. and this was when the OPP officer began to follow the vehicle. This intersection is just slightly more than 1.3 kilometres from the cliff. At 80 km/h (22.2 metres per second) the vehicle would reach the end of the road in about 58 seconds, as noted earlier. What was going on with the remaining 12 minutes?
Perhaps we misunderstood the information. Perhaps the word “near” used in the phrase “…began following a vehicle on Springfield Road near Nova Scotia Line” meant something much further than we assumed and that it took about 12 minutes to reach the vicinity of the intersection. However, how far would the vehicles have to be from the intersection so that, in 12 minutes, they reached that intersection? Well, at 80 km/h and 22.2 metres per second, the 12 minutes is equal to 720 seconds. So at a speed of 22.2 metres per second the vehicles would travel about 15,984 metres or almost 16 kilometres! To put that in perspective, the figure below shows the distance being measured from the noted intersection to the nearby town of Aylmer which is about 11.5 kilometres away as the crow flies. So the two vehicles would have to have been at a location of the Town of Aylmer when the OPP officer began to follow the vehicle in order that, 13 minutes later, they could arrive at the intersection and the OPP officer would then decide to pull the vehicle over. Such a distance cannot logically mean “near the intersection”.
But let us move on to the next sentence: “At that point, someone threw a package out the car’s window”.
Presumably, the OPP officer would have to be close enough to the vehicle to be able to see a package being thrown out. So the officer would have to be within viewing range, presumably on Springfield Road. And this action would have to occur before the vehicle moved onto the gravel portion of the road south of Nova Scotia Line.
The figure below shows the view looking south along Springfield Road toward the intersection of Nova Scotia Line from about 300 metres north. The road is essentially straight and level.
The figure below shows another southward view along Springfield Road, this time from the intersection with Nova Scotia Line. In the background it can be seen how the road becomes a gravel surface south of the intersection.
What is “viewing range” may depend on the type or size of the object and contrast with respect to the background. As one is further away an object appears smaller in one’s field of view. As an example, a large van positioned about 400 metres from an observer would only be about 5 centimetres (2 inches) tall when drawn on a sheet of paper and viewed at a distance of 10 metres (ten large steps). Thus observing a small object being thrown out of a window at a distance of 400 metres or more would be difficult to detect.
We then examine the next sentence: “The officer stopped to get the package, then searched for the car”.
If the OPP officer was close enough to observe something being thrown out of the vehicle then the opposite could also hold true: that the driver of the vehicle was able to see the police cruiser and perhaps attempted to flee for that reason. However, if the vehicle was close to the intersection of Nova Scotia Line when the package was dropped one could presume that the vehicle then travelled south along Springfield Road toward the south terminus of that road. Meanwhile it would seem unusual that the OPP officer would not be familiar enough with the patrol area to not recognize that Springfield Road terminated about 1.3 kilometres south of the intersection. Thus it would not seem suprizing regarding where that fleeing vehicle would be and it should have been a relatively easy task for the Officer to continue to travel southward toward the terminus of the road as there was no other direction that the fleeing vehicle could go. The wording that the Officer had to commence to “search” for the vehicle seems rather inappropriate.
The final sentence in the statement read: “A civilian told the officer the vehicle had been driven off the cliff on Springfield Road, just east of Port Bruce, and into the lake”.
Presumably, after the officer had picked up and examined the package he continued to proceed southward along Springfield Road. There would be a limited number of persons who could actually observe the vehicle travelling over the cliff and the most likely person would likely have some relationship to the single residence near the terminus of the road.
The intriguing part of the reported facts is that the vehicle was found submerged in the water of the lake. This suggests that the motion of the vehicle over the cliff resulted in the vehicle progressing into a deeper portion water than simply to its edge. This is intriguing because of the long horizontal distance that the vehicle would have to travel from the edge of the cliff to the relatively deeper water where it could be submerged. In one of the figures shown earlier in this article we noted that the horizontal distance from the edge of the cliff to the edge of the water was about 45 metres. Speed calculations can be made from this vertical and horizontal motion using free flight trajectory analysis.
Free flight trajectory analysis studies the result when a vehicle travelling generally along the horizontal plane of the earth is projected into the air and is no longer in contact with that plane. The earth’s gravitational pull draws the vehicle down toward the centre of the earth until it meets up with the opposing structure (usually ground) again. The time/distance that the vehicle remains projected in the air is dependent on its speed and angle of projection. Various authors have developed formulae which are used by accident reconstructionists to determine the initial speed at the instance of projection.
In a 1981 treatise by members of the University of Western Ontario Multi-Disciplinary Accident Research Team (“Vehicle Dynamics: Free Flight Trajectory Analysis”, A. German, et. al.) the authors presented some graphs illustrating the path of projected vehicles based on their speed and projection angle. The figure below shows such a graph for a zero projection angle, meaning that the initial angle of take off is parallel to the horizontal surface of the earth.
Along the vertical scale at the left is the vertical drop in metres. Along the horizontal scale at the top is the horizontal distance (R (m)) that the vehicle was found to travel in the air before returning to make contact with the ground. The horizontal scale along the bottom is the initial velocity (speed) of the vehicle upon its instant of projection into the air.
In our present case we do not know the landing point nor do we know where the vehicle came to rest after falling from the cliff into Lake Erie. However these facts will undoubtedly be known to the police investigators. As an example, if our vehicle travelled horizontally 45 metres while falling to a landing point 8 metres (@ 26 feet) then the vehicle’s speed would be in the approximate range of 130 km/h. Regardless of this calculated value, the fact that the vehicle ended up in a deeper portion of water would suggest a very substantial take-off speed at the top of the cliff.
While such a high speed may not seem unusual during a police chase it must be remembered that this is the speed at the edge of the cliff. Why was this vehicle still travelling very fast at this location? The figure below shows the view in the last few metres as a vehicle approaches the terminus of the road before the edge of the cliff.
The above view is from about 140 metres north of the cliff. At about this location the driver should be able to recognize that the road ends as there will no longer be any gravel visible and the farm field should be evident. If the driver was travelling at 130 km/h, or about 36 metres per second, we could estimate that it could take him an additional two seconds, or 72 metres, to detect the end of the road and determine that he was entering the farm field (even if he could not detect that he was approaching the cliff). This could mean that maximum braking could commence as the vehicle approached the edge of the farm field at a distance of about 75 metres away from the cliff edge.
The characteristics of the farm field are unknown as it might contain a crop, have been recently plowed or might have remained untouched and bare. Most likely the surface would be uneven and soft suggesting that the sliding friction could be quite high if the vehicle’s wheels had to plow through some of the soft earth. A range of deceleration of f=.7 would not be an unusual starting point for the estimated friction. Using this over the potential braking distance of 75 metres would indicate that the vehicle could have lost about 115 km/h of speed before reaching the cliff edge. So was the vehicle travelling much faster as it approached the end the road than its substantial speed at the edge of the cliff? Unfortunately we have not been present at the site of the collision to evaluate that physical evidence.
However, this poses an additional question: Where is the roadway signage that would be expected to indicate that this was a dead-end? Required signage would include a checkerbroad sign along with signage on approach to the terminus indicating that the road was coming to an end. No such signage appears to exist. Now the additional complication comes to fore in that the presence of such signage might have alerted the driver and he might have braked and perhaps avoided going over the cliff. Certainly a checkerboard sign could easily be detected from a long distance on approach to the end of the road thus even a very high speed could be aborted with an additional 75 metres beyond the sign to the cliff edge.
So will this lack of signage ever be revealed by police or news media? From our previous experience likely not.
Overall, the information provided by the official news media, and presumably taken from the information released by police and the SIU, is confusing at best. It does not seem to provide an accurate account of how the events unfolded leading to this tragedy. The SIU is requesting information from potential witnesses however they also need to examine the accuracy of the information they release as this has an effect on the image they present to the public. There have been numerous previous complaints by the public that the SIU is too restrictive in releasing information about their investigations and their outcomes. Here is another indication that their methods of communicating with the public, as well as those of the investigating police, need to be improved.