There are multiple sides to every story. A car accident is no different.
Automotive forensic investigators study accident scenes, cars and the roads
to piece together the puzzle. Sometimes they even reconstruct collisions on
They answer questions like: which driver is at fault? What was the speed
of each vehicle? Was the collision the result of faulty car manufacturing?
Without automotive forensic investigators, car manufacturers may keep producing
faulty parts. And insurance rates might go through the roof, since insurance
companies absorb the cost of false claims.
Robert Sokol of Kansas explains his profession. "The police call it vehicle
autopsy. I take cars, motorcycles, boats, trucks, tractors and trailers apart
to find the cause and origin of the problem," he says.
Andrew Happer is an automotive forensic investigator. "We examine the damaged
vehicles to measure the extent of crush. We examine seat-belts for evidence
of having been used during the collision," he says.
"Sometimes, human hair or organic samples are taken for DNA tests. We also
record any collision evidence, such as tire marks, debris, damaged curbs or
From this evidence, investigators can determine the speed of the vehicles.
They can tell if the accident could have been avoided. They can uncover fraudulent
claims made by the owners of the vehicles.
Sometimes the manufacturer of the car can be at fault. This type of claim
is called subrogation. It's when a major defect occurs in your car, you get
hurt and you sue the manufacturer.
Investigators use cameras, computers, police reports and witness testimony
to solve the mysteries of accidents. Sometimes they can determine how fast
a car was moving just by the skid marks.
Investigator Don Peak in Colorado says he reconstructs about five to 15
cases per month. However, the number of cases has gone up over the years.
These professionals may find themselves outside on a highway studying skid
marks. They may be in an autobody workshop or police impound analyzing the
car wreck. Or they could be in court giving testimony. Once data is compiled,
investigators sometimes work in an office to piece together the evidence.
You must know how to communicate well. You need to interpret evidence in
plain English for a jury. You need to talk to witnesses. You have to fill
out paperwork and compile technical reports.
Part of scientific analysis, says Peak, is being able to write your findings
down clearly and concisely. "We regularly write technical reports, which inform
the clients of our results. These reports are used as evidence in trials,"
Denise Hyde works for the Palm Beach, Florida, sheriff's office. She says
math is important. "You don't have to memorize everything, but you need to
enjoy it," she says. That's because you use it a lot.
Happer explains other skills that help shed light on cases. "I use my observational
skills during vehicle or scene examinations. I use my knowledge of physics
and engineering principles during the analysis of collisions. I also use my
memory of past collisions to compare the case at hand with results in the
past. I use my memory of technical publications that I have reviewed."
The investigators disagree on the degrees of danger. Peak analyzes vehicle
fires. He arrives on the scene with the car burning. "Vehicles have toxins
and gases, and even shocks can explode. You need the proper safety equipment,"
Other investigators arrive after the car has been impounded. In that case,
the dangers are limited. "The vehicle is many times covered with blood and
other bodily fluids. Not knowing if the owner had AIDS or hepatitis, I wear
protective gloves, mask and gown," explains Sokol.
Happer doesn't see much danger in his job. "We examine vehicles in the
safety of someone's driveway or in impound yards. In the case of a fire investigation,
the fire has already been extinguished," he says.
But he does note some dangers. "During examinations, there may be a very
slight hazard for inhaling toxic fumes or blood pathogens. During scene examinations,
we must be careful with traffic around us."
Peak says business has increased considerably over the years. He believes
insurance companies that are more concerned with fraudulent claims are seeking
out forensic investigators to piece together the puzzle.