Winning the blame game

24 April 2008

In a new study by the Federal Motor Carrier Administration (FMCA), it was found that in two-vehicle collisions involving truck-trailers and passenger vehicles, passenger vehicles were assigned the critical reason of the crash 56% of the time, while trucks were assessed the fault 44% of the time. Based on these statistics, it is simple to conclude that in the majority of car-truck accidents, the car is the vehicle that is more likely to cause the collision.

However, this is not the impression one would gather from the strong anti-truck/heavy transport bias prevalent today. The general consensus at an accident scene is that the bigger vehicle caused the crash. To add insult to injury, it is well known that big trucks equal big bucks. Commercial vehicle accidents are a windfall for plaintiff's attorneys. Attorneys are well aware that Federal law requires at least $1 million in insurance coverage for vehicles involved in interstate commerce. In the event of an accident, a prompt and proactive investigation can help to minimize the effect of the anti-transport bias, in addition to positioning your company more favorably in the event that litigation ensues.

With modern technology increasingly becoming more available to commercial carriers, governmental agencies and third parties, investigations have become more thorough and complete. However, this is not to say that all accident investigations are done properly, especially when it comes to accident reconstruction.

Vitally important process

Provided it is done by a qualified professional, accident reconstruction is vital to assure that a claim is handled properly. Accident reconstruction can provide the whos, whats, wheres, whys and hows of an accident or collision. “Reconstructionists” assemble the puzzle using a range of techniques - measurements and formulas, photographs, interviews, forensic mapping, and the like. There are many keys to a successful accident reconstruction. First and foremost, prompt response to an accident is essential to a successful accident reconstruction.

This is true for any sort of heavy transport accident, including accidents involving cargo damage. Of course, this means that the burden is placed on you to contact your insurance carrier right away in the event of an accident. Once the insurance carrier is alerted, they can deploy a qualified investigator or reconstructionist to the scene. This is the optimal scenario for accident reconstruction, as accident scene conditions can change drastically within hours. There really is no substitute for the work a reconstructionist can do while investigating the scene directly after the accident. For example, he can observe the roadway conditions, assess the condition of the pavement at the time of the accident, confirm and measure skid marks, determine which vehicles made which skid marks and take all necessary photographs and measurements.

In some cases it is not possible to deploy a qualified reconstructionist to the scene for various reasons. For example, an accident may occur in a remote location or a governmental agency may need to clear the roadway quickly after the accident has occurred. If this is the case, you may have to undertake some of the initial investigation, which can later be provided to an accident reconstructionist. Of course, the information provided to the accident reconstructionist is subject to the “garbage in, garbage out” rule, meaning that the reconstructionist's assessment will only be as good as the data provided to him. It is suggested, therefore, that even if a reconstructionist cannot make it to the scene, you should contact your insurance carrier, who will be able to assist you (either directly or under the direction of an accident reconstructionist) in gathering critical data from the accident scene. The photo-documentation of the scene offers critical information that should be provided to the reconstructionist. Photos should include:

• Distance shots of the accident site

• Close ups of the accident

• Photos of any skid marks

• DOT ID and ICC numbers

• Tail light function verification

• Close ups of vehicle(s) involved in the accident (front, back, both, sides)

• Photos of restraining devices, tie downs, clamps

• Exterior markings of length, weight, etc.

• Pavement photos (to show condition at the time of the accident).

In addition to photos, basic information can be gathered, but it is not your job to determine the cause of the accident at this point. The basic information that should be gathered and obtained for the reconstructionist includes:

• Information about the load- weight, how it was secured, etc.

• Driver information

• Type of trailer and tractor involved

• What inspections by various agencies were made at the scene

Preparation and training is important so that when an accident occurs, your team is ready for action. This involves a training policy that alerts drivers to what their responsibilities are in the event of an accident. When everyone is aware of the procedure and responsibilities, the accident investigation is much more efficient and successful.

Assessing inaccuracies

Many companies make the mistake of not hiring a reconstructionist based on the belief that they can rely on the investigation of local or state authorities who were at the accident scene. However, police and other agencies are often ill-equipped to handle complex investigations involving specialized carriers or heavy haulers. Some police academies limit their instruction on accident investigation to a two-hour “class” on how to fill out a crash report, and only approximately 20% of police trainees take a five-day crash investigation course. The bottom line is most officers do not have the practical, hands-on experience in accident reconstruction, nor the training in the engineering and mathematics required to be a qualified accident reconstructionist. Often reports by these authorities are incomplete, and very rarely do they contain photos or measurements.

It is not just authorities or agencies that masquerade as accident reconstructionists, but often the experts themselves are not really “experts” in accident reconstruction. This becomes evident through their investigations. Many common mistakes can be made by these so-called experts. Evidence can easily be misinterpreted in scene photos; what may be the shadow of an overhead power line may appear to be a tire mark to the unqualified reconstructionist. Incorrect science may also be used to determine acceleration rates or drag factors. Shortcuts may be taken. In addition, many of these inexperienced reconstructionists will use computer programs to aid in the reconstruction of accidents. The results are easily manipulated by the data put into the program, and often time data is input wrong. Human error in measurement is also an issue for inexperienced accident reconstructionists, who will often be dealing in feet per second, but will use miles per hour in a formula.

Awareness of these inaccuracies in accident reconstruction is crucial so that your company is not relying on erroneous accident information. If there is ever any doubt with regard to the qualifications of an accident reconstructionist, ask him to provide support for his methodology.

Black box technology

Although an accident reconstructionist most likely will be able to provide a qualified assessment of the cause of an accident, even if he was not at the scene immediately, black box technology can certainly aid an accident reconstructionist. Black box technology can aid an accident reconstructionist by providing critical pre-accident data, including speed of travel, braking time, and the like. This information is far more reliable than estimates given by witnesses or drivers. In addition, the factual data that black boxes gather can help to overcome any conflicting information provided by various parties, including your driver, witnesses and police, as well as any biases against your company that may be reflected in any investigative reports.

However, black box technology and its use in the trucking and heavy haul industry can be controversial. Most companies fear that the use of this black box technology will be a tool for the government to ACT as “Big Brother” with regard to law enforcement, and are reluctant to use it. If this information is not used for enforcement or audit purposes, and is used solely for accident investigation, it can be an effective tool.

A successful accident reconstruction is premised on prompt notice of the accident to get the freshest information possible. It is up to you to confirm that your drivers are aware that as soon as an accident occurs, your carrier should be notified. If an accident reconstructionist is unable to make it to the scene, you should take instructions from your carrier on what accident-specific information should be obtained.


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