Anatomy of a car crash

Linda Melone
Keeping a cool head after a car crash isn't easy. Once you realize you're unharmed, the questions begin. Was the crash your fault? Will your auto insurance rates increase? What caused the crash in the first place?
The cost of medical care and productivity losses associated with crash injuries surpassed $99 billion in 2010 -- nearly $500 for every licensed U.S. driver, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No matter whether they're involved in injury accidents, insured drivers pay the price. In fact, insurers pay about half of all costs associated with car crashes -- costs that get passed along to policyholders.
Knowing the workings of a car crash and the roles of the experts involved can help you gear up mentally in case you're a crash victim.
The police officer's role
The procedures used when investigating a wreck vary from case to case, but the following sequence offers a typical scenario.
When a police officer arrives on the scene, he or she first makes sure no one is in danger, says Michael Rice, a retired Los Angeles County,Calif., sheriff's deputy and an accident reconstruction expert.
"The officer then takes in a quick view of the scene, including observing where the vehicles came to rest, which may indicate the pre-impact direction in which the vehicles were traveling," Rice says.
The officer also secures the scene so that information that can be used for analysis is not lost. For example, faint tire tracks from a vehicle may be hidden by a responding emergency vehicle.
Secondly, the officer will look for independent, unbiased witnesses who are at the scene. "They're likely in a hurry, so we try to get their statements if they were courteous enough to stop," Rice says.
After talking with witnesses, the officer then will speak to the drivers -- preferably not together -- to avoid confrontation.
After that, the officer will look at the vehicles and other physical evidence, such as crash debris or skid marks.
The officer may summon other officers to assist. The roles of the extra manpower may range from controlling traffic to mapping out the accident scene to making an arrest, Rice says. The officer in charge of the scene also may send for investigators to take photos of the scene.
Piecing together the scene
An accident "reconstructionist" or "collision analyst" may arrive if someone died in the crash, a government vehicle was involved or fraud is suspected. The reconstructionist will evaluate the evidence and determine, for instance, the speeds of the cars involved, says Philip Wang, senior forensic engineer at California-based Momentum Engineering, which specializes in accident reconstruction.
Key evidence for accident reconstructionists includes tire marks on the road, marks on seat belts indicating they were being used and recordings from event data recorders, which are part of many vehicles' air bag systems, according to Wang.
The reconstructionist usually groups the information he collects into three categories: humans, vehicles and environment (such as weather and visibility), says W.R. "Rusty" Haight, director of the Collision Safety Institute in California.
"The goals of the analysis vary with each accident," Haight says. "One case may be about speed, and the next case may be about who was driving."
The insurance perspective
From the insurance perspective, it's important that the officers accurately indicated in the police report which drivers were at fault, says David Miller, CEO of Brightway Insurance in Florida. That includes whether any of the motorists received a traffic citation.
"If it was the other person's fault, it's better to file a claim with their insurance company so you don't have to pay out of pocket for your deductible and then wait for it to be reimbursed," Miller says.
If you've been in a car crash, make sure you get the toll-free phone numbers for the other motorists' auto insurance companies, Miller says, as the police report may list only the companies' names.
Once you've got the phone numbers, call the companies from the accident scene to be sure that the other motorists' insurance information is current, Miller says. "Although their insurance card may indicate their insurance is up to date, they may be behind in their payments and are actually without coverage," he says.

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