Wednesday, August 15, 2018
Public safety

Romano: Traffic geeks crash cars in the name of science and justice

The pedestrian, wearing sunglasses, a baseball cap and headphones, is not moving. The car, closing in on 40 mph, is not stopping.

The collision is inevitable, which explains all the law enforcement types sitting nearby in bleachers and lawn chairs with notebooks and cameras in hand.

Welcome to another day of mayhem and mathematics at the Special Problems in Traffic Crash Reconstruction conference in Pinellas Park and Clearwater Beach this week.

Don't let the stodgy title fool you. The seminar is a week of techno splendor for cops and consultants who routinely show up at roadside collisions and piece together a tragedy using little more than skid marks, measurements and complex mathematical equations.

So, on this bright Tuesday morning, they're crashing cars into buses. Motorcycles into cars. Cars into bicycles. They're running over perfectly proportioned mannequins at various speeds and angles to simulate the carnage of a vehicle hitting a pedestrian.

And they're recording every minute detail to develop a baseline and an expertise in reconstructing real-life collisions.

"You've got the best of the best here in terms of both people and technology," said Lt. Nick Lazaris, who heads up the Major Accident Investigation Team for the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

The seminar is the brainchild of the Institute of Police Technology and Management, a law enforcement training center based at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.

Nearly 200 consultants, engineers, instructors, vendors and law enforcement personnel from around the world are here, taking part in a weeklong series of classes, as well as the staged collisions on the grounds of the Showtime Speedway in Pinellas Park.

Or, if you prefer, it's a week of geeks and guns.

Think I'm kidding? Consider some of the topics covered:

"Critical speed yaw or spin?"

"Crush, stiffness values, and force balance case study application"

"Using simultaneous equations to solve inline collisions"

Cops learn to distinguish different types of skid marks, and to determine the point of impact based on the direction and distance of vehicle or pedestrian debris. They use robotic mapping systems and data collected from vehicle computer systems.

And by staying on top of the latest technological concepts and breakthroughs, they're no longer forced to rely on tape measures and spray-painted lanes to reconstruct crashes. They don't need to shut down intersections nearly as long while doing investigations. And they're far better prepared to answer questions in depositions and court hearings.

"A lot of times we'll get to a scene and the cars have been moved, or the witnesses will have completely different stories," Pinellas sheriff's Capt. Glenn Luben said. "That's where this becomes so important. This is physical evidence. This stuff can't be argued.

"Sometimes an attorney will say, 'Well, this is just a theory.' No, it's not. I've seen it done, and I have the diagrams, video and photos to prove it."

The seminar comes at an opportune time for the Pinellas Sheriff's Office, which has recently added eight members to its major-accident team.

Between the academic commitment — deputies can eventually take a half-dozen accident reconstruction courses ranging from 40 to 80 hours each — and the toll of being summoned to so many fatal sites, the unit has a high turnover and burnout factor.

The unit responds to 70 to 80 calls a years, with maybe a dozen or more involving fatalities. The rest of the calls could have major injuries, DUI investigations or hit-and-run implications. Even calls without criminal possibilities are meticulously mapped.

"You have to remember that someone's loved one was killed or seriously injured in a lot of these cases," Luben said. "Those people deserve to know what happened.

"I couldn't sleep at night if I didn't think we were doing everything we could possibly do to solve every single incident we respond to."

   
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