The drab words routinely accompany announcements of fatal vehicle crashes across the state:
“Nothing further is available as Troopers with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency’s (ALEA) Highway Patrol Division continue to investigate.”
Those words announce the beginning of an enormous amount of work involving skilled people and cutting-edge technology employed at scenes of individual heartache and disorder.
“You have to become that scene,” said Phillip Faulkner, an ALEA officer with the title of accident reconstructionist. “You have to be the voice of every victim. You have to live that scene throughout the legal system.”
It’s a job whose importance can quickly come into focus.
In June, 10 people died and 26 people were injured in a fiery crash on Interstate 65 in Butler County. The victims were in a van and a small SUV, but the crash involved 12 vehicles, including two 18-wheelers.
An automobile crash can entail a dizzying amount of variables.
The number of vehicles involved, the speeds they were traveling, the number of passengers, the angles of the vehicles, weather and visibility, time of day, the conditions of the drivers, reliability of the vehicles, and a myriad of other factors which can dictate the severity of the outcome.
All those individual facts can also frustrate those whose job it is to determine what happened.
It isn’t just curiosity motivating investigators about what happened.
Automobile accidents can spawn criminal charges and civil lawsuits. Drivers may have been responsible, or defective vehicles, and their makers, liable.
According to the Alabama Department of Transportation, 930 people were killed in 851 fatal crashes in 2019. More than half of those crashes, 51%, happened at night. About 77% of crashes occurred within urban areas, but 59% of fatalities occurred on rural roads.
Traffic homicide investigators are dispatched to accident scenes if there appears to be potential loss of life and some type of criminal prosecution, Cpl. Jeremy Burkett with ALEA’s Highway Patrol Unit said.
After seeing to the needs of victims, the first priority is to preserve the scene, Cpl. Jacob Zimmerman said.
If the crash occurred on an interstate, there is some responsibility to resume the flow of traffic. But a large scale scene, with multiple vehicles, will take time.
“There’s not much of a timeframe,” Zimmerman said. “We have to be as thorough as we can.”
If vehicles are at the scene, they will be checked to see if there were any factors that could have led to the accident.
Investigators will get time to question the drivers, if not at the wreck site, then later at the hospital. If the vehicles have been towed, investigators will inspect them there.
If the crash involved a commercial vehicle, investigators will look at records, from what was being hauled to the vehicle history. Tires will be inspected, along with lights.
What was the condition of the cab? Where were objects stored, such as fire extinguishers? Could anything have obstructed the driver’s view?
Some of this work can be done later, after the scene has been cleared. But ALEA now employs two devices which have not only made the investigation process more efficient, but more exacting.
One is the use of drones.
Joey Hamilton, with the State Bureau of Investigation, is a drone pilot. ALEA has about 27 drones statewide, and more then 20 drone pilots for each region of the state. When drone pilots are dispatched to a crash scene, they usually walk the area before sending the drone up.
The drone is one tool which has significantly cut down on the amount of time needed for an investigation at the scene. Where investigators would have spent five to six hours surveying and recording, the drone can do the same job in about thirty minutes to an hour.
“We’re capturing more data than ever before,” Hamilton said.
That includes skid marks and debris patterns.
The drone can also record the scene with night vision or a thermal lens. Footage from a crash site in a rural area at midnight appeared perfectly clear, recording tracks on the road, wreckage strewn in the roadway, and the angles where the vehicles came to rest. Drones also have other uses, such as in manhunts.
Another tool is the Faro 3-D laser scanner, a device about the size of a cinderblock, mounted on a tripod. The device can scan at a distance of more than 200 feet, even in the rain, said Brian Harvin, a special agent with the SBI.
The scanner has GPS capabilities and can scan the scene of an accident, record data and render it with precision, recreating on a computer screen not only the position of the vehicles but of each individual shard of debris on the ground. The scanner acts as a documentation device, Harvin said, recording more than 970,000 points of data per second.
Later, sitting behind a computer screen, investigators can pull up the scan and examine it from virtually any angle.
One scan shown to reporters showed a book bag still sitting in the passenger side of a vehicle, recreated with intricate detail. Another accident scene showing a two-car crash on a two-lane road gave a clear picture of an accident scene that had been scanned at midnight on a road with no external lighting, save from first responding vehicles. It can take the scanner anywhere from 10 minutes to 30 minutes to gather its data, depending on the size of the accident scene, and does not need light sources to record.
Suppose one of the vehicles has already been removed from the scene. The scanner can be dispatched to the salvage yard to scan it, and that scan can be inserted into the accident scene data.
That information can then be used to recreate the accident scene with a 3D printer, if needed. Harvin showed a small model of a car damaged in a crash, with indentations rendered in detail to scale. Like the drone, the scanner is also used in recording crime scenes.
The ability to recreate an accident scene can extend to the courtroom, where the information can be used to give a jury not just a picture of the scene, but a virtual reality rendering. Where jurors may have once had to be transported to the scene to imagine the details months or years later, the scanner and drone footage can put them at the scene as it appeared moments after, Harvin said.
Beyond the data, there are also interviews with drivers, passengers, EMTs who responded, drivers of other vehicles – some of whom may be from out-of-state. Any video evidence, such as dash cams or cellphone footage, will be scrutinized. Small details, Faulkner said, may take on importance. For example, where were people in the vehicle? What was the history of the driver prior to the crash?
All of this information goes toward asking the crucial questions – how and why, Faulkner said. Sometimes it can take six to nine months before a full picture emerges. Or as some investigators say, it takes a long as it takes.
“Depending on the complexity, that takes more resources and takes longer,” he said. “Every scene tells a story.”