A Crash Course in Accident Reconstruction
|By Patrick D'Amico
From an interview with Lt. Kevin McHugh, Watch Commander and Accident Reconstructionist, Braintree (MA) Police Department
Lieutenant Kevin McHugh has seen enough death and destruction for a hundred lifetimes. McHugh is a Watch Commander and a seasoned Accident Reconstructionist with the Braintree (Massachusetts) Police Department and has witnessed close up and personal the results of the perfect storm of metal and glass that happens when motor vehicles collide. His job is to recreate with faultless accuracy the conditions and situations surrounding accidents resulting in serious injury or fatality. Since 1988, Lt. McHugh has documented every such accident occurring in Braintree. Those of us who took driver's education in the early seventies and were forced to view those horrific "Decade of Highway Death" films put out by the Ohio Highway Patrol can imagine the carnage that Lt. McHugh confronts. But he does it with the cool disposition of an engineer with a problem to solve.
It's all about accuracy
Creating the most accurate depiction of what transpired in a fatal auto accident is mostly dependent upon physical accident scene documentation and evidence. "My job is all about accuracy and precision. I am the one that will be writing and filing the accident report and then presenting evidence to the District Attorney. Based on the quality of my findings and the credibility of my opinion, the DA will make the decision to charge or not charge a person with what is usually a very serious crime," offers McHugh.
Getting to the accident scene fast is key to gathering quality evidence and McHugh has honed his response ritual down to a science, typically arriving on the scene within ten minutes of its occurrence. Oftentimes, victims are still being extricated from their vehicles making this reconstructionist's work all the more trying. "Rule number one is move nothing," emphasizes McHugh. "I take measurements, mark everything, and write it all down. I take a lot of photographs from every angle. If it's a nighttime accident, I'll return the next day and take more photos in the light of day," explains McHugh.
There are no second chances
The Polaroid Spectra instant camera plays an important role in Lt. McHugh's documentation protocol. "One of the biggest reasons I use Polaroid is that I don't get a second chance to get the photos I need," says McHugh. "If I depend solely on my 35mm equipment and something goes wrong with the camera, lenses, film or processing, I'm dead."
To protect the integrity of his evidence, Lt. McHugh typically takes both 35mm and Polaroid Spectra photos. That way, he is guaranteed to have the evidence he'll need to testify in court before releasing the accident scene for clearance.
An expert reputation to protect
"Most accident reconstructionists are accepted in court as expert witnesses," says McHugh. "I've testified as an expert in District and Superior Court as well as the Human Resources Division of the Commonwealth. Based on my qualifications and the vast number of accidents I've investigated, my opinion is usually considered expert." Needless to say, McHugh has a reputation to protect and Polaroid helps him do that.
Instant Evidence asked Lt. McHugh about the role of digital imaging in his work. "The jury's still out on admissibility," says McHugh. "Some courts accept digital and some say it's too new. In my mind, the best evidence you can have are photos that are perceived to be unretouchable and for many that's Polaroid. Once it's taken it isn't changing. It's excellent evidence," he adds.
Admissability & dependability
An issue as important as the admissibility of digital is its dependability. To underscore this point McHugh shares a story about how the department's digital software on its booking computer recently crashed. "We went an entire weekend with the digital booking system down. Fortunately for us, we had our Polaroid Spectra cameras for backup. They never go down," says Lt. McHugh.
There is a place, however, for digital in McHugh's cruiser. He uses a digital camcorder positioned on his dashboard to document the driver's eye view of vehicle-pedestrian accidents. He takes great care to capture the rolling footage in lighting conditions as close to the incident as possible.
From the accident scene to the ER
The court system isn't the only party depending on McHugh for expert photo documentation. In cases of serious, non-fatal injuries, Lt. McHugh provides ER physicians with photos of victims and their vehicles. "The Docs want to see both the damage to the car as well as how the injured was positioned in the wreck so they can look for injuries that may not be obvious when patients present at the ER," shares McHugh. "The ER is my first stop after the accident scene and the best way to deliver photos immediately is with my Polaroid Spectra."
In addition to the arduous task of reconstructing hundred of serious and fatal accidents in Braintree every year, McHugh also consults to insurance companies using his Polaroid to help corroborate the accuracy of vehicle claims. "I've probably investigated three or four hundred cases for insurance companies," shares McHugh. "In this consulting role, Polaroid gives me the confidence of knowing I will always have what I need for my clients."
Is there one incident that stands out in Lt. McHugh's mind where Polaroid helped make a difference in the turnout of the case? Says McHugh, "I can't point to one case because it makes a difference every single time. I wouldn't want to go out without the Spectra because I know by taking it with me I'm going to get the evidence I need."
Courtesy of Polaroid
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