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Automotive Forensic Investigator  What They Do

Just the Facts


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dotThere 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 computers.

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 trees."

dotFrom 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.

dotSometimes 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.

dotInvestigators 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.

dotThese 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.

dotYou 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," says Happer.

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.

dotHapper 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."

dotThe 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," he says.

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."

dotPeak 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.

At a Glance

Reconstruct auto accidents to figure out who was at fault

  • About 600 people are certified by the Accreditation Commission for Traffic Accident Reconstruction
  • Investigators use cameras, computers, police reports and witness testimony to find answers
  • An engineering degree is a good place to start