The caveman who worked harder at chiseling his stone into a smoother wheel was eventually rewarded with greater success. This idea has not changed in thousands of years, although the tools have.
Motor vehicle collision reconstruction may have been in existence for one hundred years but it took a long time to evolve. It was not until the middle of the 20th century that long-treasured wives’ tales began to be replaced with hard data and science. Science began rather simply with the use of momentum analysis, speed loss from skidding, free flight trajectory analysis, basic roadway design and signage and thoughts about how drivers process information. But as collisions caused more and more deaths and injuries governments decided to pay more attention and began creating agencies specifically focused to address the highway, the vehicle and the human behind the wheel. By 1966 the new National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was formed in the U.S. and shortly afterward the similar Road Safety Branch of Transport Canada. Specialized Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation (MDAI) teams began popping up throughout North America funded by these federal agencies. Basic findings were uncovered. As an example, in 1974 a research paper by Kenneth Campbell enhanced the belief that vehicle crush and energy had a relationship that could be exploited and so an additional tool was added in speed and change-in-velocity analyses. Specialized computer reconstruction and simulation programs were developed through the 1970s, some of which exist to the present day. And by the 1980s, as computers and statistical programs began to take hold, the specialized MDAI investigations were being replaced by statistically-based sampling regimes. Surveying tools such as total stations were added and then replaced by laser scanners and drones. Event Data Recorders began to be installed by the late 1990’s. So tools have certainly changed.
Professional collision reconstruction may see another great shift as vehicles and the roads on which they ride become integrated, talking to each other and as artificial intelligence begins to monitor and document every detail of motion. As this process develops there are still many problems that need to be ironed out. In the meantime, as the tools have changed the process of creating a good reconstruction of a motor vehicle incident still relies on the basics that applied even before there were motor vehicles on the road: Detail, Quality of Thought and Integrity.
Detail means that there is no such thing as shortcuts. There are extremely few brilliant masterminds who know everything and therefore have the right to skip the details. Detail means that you gather the evidence and data with a fine-toothed comb, not missing things because they are unlikely to matter. While collisions are unique, their unravelling is not. The collision that occurred today likely occurred thousands of times before today. One needs to recognize that past collisions and their data can do much to help the reconstructionist on a current investigation. Thus one does not gather evidence just to solve a current case. One gathers evidence so that it can be used as a basis for understanding a future incident. When one gathers a sufficient quantity of detail it soon becomes apparent that the collision is a member of a group of previous collisions, assuming that all those previous collisions have also been documented with sufficient detail. When insufficient detail is gathered it not only prevents the solution of the current incident, it also becomes a lost data point that can no longer be matched to the numerous similar collisions of the past. And the investigation becomes useful to no one.
The next cornerstone of collision reconstruction is Quality of Thought. Reconstruction is not a process of finding answers, it is a process of knowing the questions to be asked. Any computer can spill out vast amounts of “answers” but it may be useless in providing the higher order of reasoning that is only available to the human species. Humans are uniquely capable of this higher order of thought. An example of this is the comparison between the quick response that vehicular computers can make to dangers that may be unseen by a human driver, yet they have difficulty distinguishing what is a legitimate threat in complex/unique environments. What is needed is the ability to recognize that an important question has not been brought forward, and has not been answered and the determination to find the answer to that question. Sometimes limits in Quality of Thought can be improved with formal training and experience however sometimes it cannot. And the subject rarely appreciates when that is the case. In a way we all suffer from a limited psychosis in that we do not know about the things that we do not know.
The final cornerstone of collision reconstruction is Integrity. This word is used to cover a wide spectrum of issues. Our ability to send probes to Mars, to make various medical breakthroughs and reduce many hazards of our complex world is owed to the fact that we are motivated to finding those solutions. Yet in the realm of motor vehicle collision reconstruction we are often not motivated to achieve those important successes. Our own intelligence works against us when the truth is perceived as a threat to us, or when a lie is to our benefit. Regrettably motor vehicle collisions are tied to the recovery fault. Even those investigations that claim to be purely fact-finding are also finding facts that the collision was caused by something or someone. Inevitably this cause falls into someone’s lap who may be held to account.
And here lies the difference between developing a probe of the Martian planet and reconstructing a motor vehicle collision. Those NASA scientists are rarely placed in a position of finding fault, they just want to build something that will reach the planet successfully. Although their mission is very complex and difficult, they overcome their difficulties because they are motivated to find the correct solution. The Integrity of their effect rarely needs to be questioned.
Yet in the realm of motor vehicle collision reconstruction the motivation is far different. Immediately after a collision occurs police are sent in to close down the site. While it is said that this is needed to protect the evidence, the reality is that these closures can be used to hide the evidence from wide public knowledge. This is evidenced by the fact that journalists who provide an essential service of informing the public on important issues, are often prevented from coming close enough to a collision site to document even rudimentary facts. In past years when insurers were more inclined to use independent engineers and reconstructionsts there was a degree of checks and balances because additional investigations were carried out. This gave some assurance that evidence could not be tampered with. But when police are the only ones who document the evidence the potential of misdeeds is increased. While police unions, police administration, police boards and SIUs should have good reasons to work together to remove bad cops this theory falls short in practice. Integrity does not just magically appear when a person puts on a police uniform, it must be developed and maintained through correct police policy which includes an unbiased assessment of an individual officer’s performance.
Once the police reconstruction is complete other individuals and agencies become involved. In more complex incidents some of these may be government transportation experts and manufacturer representatives. Sometimes they may be insurance representatives and experts, or experts working for a plaintiff and their personal lawyer. In all these instances Integrity is in jeopardy when the purpose of these inquiries is to gain an advantage for that entity’s protection, monetary gain, or other hidden agendas.
Inevitably the results of some reconstructions end up before the criminal and civil courts. Prosecutors and their experts in criminal trials are no less motivated to twist the facts than are the defendants, their lawyers and their experts. One cannot paint all lawyers with the same brush but it is not without reason that in the back alleys in downtown London, Ontario there is a very large and beautiful mural painting of the words “The Honest Lawyer” with painted flames coming up and over those words like a barbeque from hell. While there are many legitimate plaintiffs whose cases need the reasonable judgment of an honest trial, almost everyone is aware of lawyers and their clients whose wealth has come from winning the equivalent of a courtroom lottery. Integrity stops when money flows.
Even in the highest courts Integrity is jeopardized when politicians appoint judges solely because they are friends or who can be relied upon to make judgments based on some political or ideological agenda. It is sometimes said that we need more dumb judges because we have too many smart ones. By that what is meant is that the courts do not need egotists who already know what happened in a case before they have heard the evidence. As an example, in a very old criminal trial involving a fatal collision, the judge ignored the expert testimony about the travel direction of the two vehicles claiming “It is obvious which direction they were travelling just by looking at their pointing angles and final rest positions”. Even when lawyers from both sides of the case recognized his error and wanted to annul the matter the judge would not hear of it. It finally took a court of appeal to stop the injustice. The truly admirable judges are willing to admit they have not grasped all the issues and are willing to ask questions until they have a clear understanding. That may not move then up to become members of higher courts but Integrity matters more to them than the prestige of higher office.
Detail, Quality of Thought and Integrity have always been key cornerstones to collision reconstruction. When one stone is missing or flawed one can see how even the most impressive efforts can be for nothing. But when all are present and well placed they enable the stability of great accomplishments well beyond collision reconstruction itself.