5 keys to accurate traffic collision documentation

Officers who work motor patrol have to document traffic collisions far more frequently than officers working directed patrol or other police duties, but at any time you may be called to this task


You may have had an experience where you’re either working a shift that doesn’t have any traffic/motor units, or those units are off on another “training ride.” Well, as one of those units, I humbly submit the following guide for basic collision investigation.

If bodies litter the roadway, rest assured the experts will be forced to postpone their training ride. However, if it’s a simple fender bender, or even if there are minor injuries, just follow these simple steps and you’ll soon see how very easy a collision can be to document.

1. Secure the Scene. Some folks can be obstinate about not moving vehicles blocking the lane or they wander about as if in a daze. To be fair, if it was a bad crash, they may very well be dazed. So do them and yourself a favor and get the cars out of the roadway if they’re drivable. Snap a few quick photos if need be.

If the cars aren’t drivable, it’s time for everyone’s favorite smelly combustible - the flare(s). Better yet, if your local hose jockeys happen to be there as well, they are usually amenable to putting the BRT (Big Red Truck) blocking the collision and rendering us fairly safe. A word of caution regarding the BRT. Our counterparts are infamous for parking right on top of your evidence. If the collision is serious enough, keep that in mind and direct the heroes to place the BRT appropriately. Remember, a collision scene is yours to command.

2. Identify Involved Parties. This can be as simple as one solo driver up to numerous parties (drivers, passengers and witnesses). Once you’ve identified the parties, separate them as best you can. As with any other report, what one person saw/heard/said can influence what another will have seen/heard/say.

Make sure to identify all the passengers. God forbid you neglect to include them and suddenly they see dollar signs and become miraculously injured the next day due to the collision. On a side note, collisions draw folks like moths to a flame. It would behoove you to clear the immediate area of people not involved (read: driver/passenger/witness). It’ll assist you greatly in reducing the chaos.

3. Conduct Interviews. I’d suggest starting with the witnesses. Typically, they’re in a rush to get going. Minimally, get a good contact number for them so you can follow up later — and by later, don’t let too much time pass. People tend to forget and their stories will deteriorate over time. Try and lock them in as soon as possible.

Ask them where they were when the collision occurred. Quite often, a “witness” will say they “heard” the crash, then either turned around or “ran outside to see.” More often than not, these people aren’t witnesses in the truest sense of the word, so take their statement with a grain of salt.

When taking driver statements, make sure you lock down what happened leading up to the collision. What direction were they traveling? Which roadway were they on? Which lane were they in? If there are controls present, what were they and what were their condition (light red, green, etc.)? Were they on the cell? Messing with the stereo? Yelling at the kids? What were the conditions of the road? Was the sun a factor?

Just as in writing a crime report, we’re trying to answer six simple questions. Who, what, when, why, where, and how. It really isn’t much more difficult than that.

One of the first questions you need to ask is if anyone is injured and then document them accordingly. If there are no injuries, make sure you document that as well (which may simply involve not checking a certain box or not adding an additional “injured party” page if that is applicable to your department).

Personally, if there is even a “complaint of pain” I get Fire rolling. Better to transfer that liability to someone else who can document a refusal more appropriately than me. Sometimes, a person doesn’t want to be a bother or they’re just too macho to admit getting rear-ended at 25 MPH freaking hurts. They may wake up tomorrow wicked stiff, so be accurate in your description of the damage. That way, even if they say they’re not hurt and they appear okay at the scene, it won’t come back to bite them down the road.

Conversely, if someone is claiming they can’t feel their legs, yet there they stand chatting on their cell phone, feel free to come just shy of writing “I call B.S.” in your report. As much grief as I give my friends at Fire regarding the “Mechanism of Injury”, there is something to be said regarding damage to a vehicle and expected injury to the occupants.

4. Take Photos and Document Additional Evidence. One of the important things about documenting the evidence is this: It won’t lie to you. The evidence will typically tell you more about what happened than the driver of the same car at which you are looking. If the driver says the other car “blew the light” and hit him on the driver’s side, yet all the damage is to the front grill, there’s an issue and you need to explore it further.

5. Sketch the Scene. Now, I’m no Rembrandt, so luckily, we’re talking about an elementary school level sketch. Painfully basic. This is not the place to stretch your artistic legs. Show the roadway. Show the vehicles in motion and show where they connected. Your five-year-old should be able to look at it and see that two cars went boom.

One of the things about the sketch that most cops hate is documenting the AOI (Area of Impact). Remember, it’s an area, not a point. It doesn’t have to be exact. All you need is two measurements. One from the east/west direction and the other from the north/south direction (typically from the curb line) to properly triangulate the area in which the collision occurred.

Conclusion
Officers who work motor patrol have to document traffic collisions far more frequently than officers working directed patrol or other police duties, but at any time you may be called to this task. Take the above information and put it in the back of your mind for that day — these tactics work, and can help to make your documentation of a collision less traumatic.

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