When cars crash, reconstructionists work to explain why

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Two cars, each containing four people, crash late at night, on a dark road in Livingston County, leaving five dead and three injured.

After the ambulances leave, it’s up to the reconstructionists to pinpoint how and why crashes occurred.

“Why are we running into things? That’s not a normal process,” said Lt. Gary Megge, commander of the eight sergeants who make up the Michigan State Police Traffic Crash Reconstruction Unit working to answer questions on some 500 or so cases a year.

Sgt. Allan Avery is “absolutely knee-deep” in the investigation of the May 9 crash, Megge said. Shortly after the Livingston County crash, Michigan State Police Traffic Crash Reconstruction Unit stepped in. It could be weeks before the investigation is finalized, officials said, and the reconstruction will be part of the evidence prosecutors will use to determine if criminal charges will be filed.

This is one of the vehicles involved in a two-vehicle traffic crash that killed five people and critically injured three others. the deadly crash that occurred on May 9, 2017, at approximately 10:30 p.m. in Livingston County’s Oceola Township at the intersection of Argentine Road and M-59.

“No one gets up in the morning and says, ‘You know what, I’m going to crash my car on the way to work.’ That’s not the way we operate. We don’t want to crash our cars. We don’t want to get hurt and we don’t want to hurt anybody else, so why do we do this?”

Half a minute

Thirty seconds, says Megge. That’s all it takes to crash. Have you ever taken a sip of coffee or checked your phone or grabbed for something under the seat? Then you’re engaging in some of the prime reasons for distracted driving.

Distraction leads to crashes, he said.

Just as technology in autos has improved driving, so too has it shaped accident reconstruction: 3-D animation helps recreate crashes; robotics and drones also are used in the field.

After the police academy, every state trooper gets about 20 hours of training in on-scene investigations for accidents, Megge said.

Megge estimates that the eight sergeants who work under him each have about 2,000 to 3,000 hours of “crash specific” training under their belts, along with years of experience.

If a full reconstruction is necessary, as in the Livingston crash, reconstruction specialists get to the scene “as soon as possible” so as to “make sure all evidence is documented, photographed and measured,” Megge said. “We document every single thing that’s out there: traffic signs, the roadside environment, everything.”

Investigators conduct a full inspection of the vehicles “to make sure there isn’t a mechanical problem.” In addition, “we work to determine who was sitting where, what type of restraints those occupants had on and whether the air bags deployed.”

Information from the black box, or the “event data recorder,” is pulled. But Megge said “big brother isn’t watching.” Event data recorders record what took place immediately before and during a crash: speed before impact, change in speed at impact, steering angle, if seat belts were worn and if brakes were deployed. Even whether the vehicle was on cruise control or not.

Once the vehicles are inspected, the focus moves to the participants in the crash. This is where medical records (and autopsy records, if applicable) are reviewed, as well as “injury profiles and patterns” to determine where everybody inside in the vehicle was sitting, which can take from “days to weeks.”

In the end, the information goes in the investigative file that prosecutors review when determining who, if anyone, should face criminal charges.

The Detroit Police Department has its own four-man fatal squad, said Michael Woody, director of media relations. Timely work is important in cases involving criminal liability and vehicles, he said.

“The nature of vehicles being mobile means the car becomes our crime scene,” Woody said. “Once it leaves the area, takes our evidence with it.”

‘Don’t blame the phone, blame the driver’

Crashes often to boil down to three factors, Megge said: distractions, fatigue and impairment.

“Think about everything we do when we drive,” Megge said. “We talk to passengers, drink coffee, change the radio, look at billboards, fall asleep, get drowsy, drop things on the floor and reach and go get it. People read newspapers, put on makeup, and comb their hair.”

While driving impaired is illegal, Michigan does not have a distracted driving law. Efforts are afoot to change that.

But Megge said distractions are a given for drivers.

“We are distracted every time we get in the vehicle,” Megge said. “Every time we turn the heater up or down or adjust the mirror or adjust the radio, it’s a form of distraction. Most of us, most of the time, can still do those other functions and drive safely. The problem is when we become over-focused on these other activities, whatever they may be.”

Cellphones often are cited as a distraction, but Megge said there were more traffic crashes in the 1980s than today. In 1988, more than 1,500 people died in car crashes in Michigan; in 2016, 1,064 people died.

“Don’t blame the phone, blame the driver,” Megge said.

What results from distracted driving is what gets people into trouble.

“If you’re going down the freeway at 75, combing your hair, looking in the mirror and not paying attention to where you’re going for 30 seconds, you’re apt to crash,” Megge said. “Because of that crash, now you have committed a violation, whether that’s crossing the center line, rear-ending someone or running someone off the road. That’s what we try to get down to: why do we continue to run into things?”

Maria Miller, spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, said the work of crash reconstruction specialists helps prosecutors in the courtroom.

“(They) can give insight into what happened leading up to, during and after the crash,” Miller said in an email. “This forensic evidence, along with other evidence, can prove the criminal actions of the person who caused the crash beyond a reasonable doubt in court.”