I've spent a good portion of my 31-year career pushing back against the myth that a police crash report is the final word on any collision. The most obvious reason not to place too much faith in police reports is that they don't conclusively establish fault for a crash. In other words, everyone is free to dispute a police report's findings.
A more practical concern, particularly with crashes involving commercial vehicles, is that those involved can never be sure that the investigator has the training and resources necessary to properly investigate the crash. Before I get into the things that police sometimes miss during crash investigations, allow me a moment to discuss why police investigative errors can occur.
Police Look for Crimes. They Don't Gather Evidence for Civil Disputes.
I'm a personal injury and wrongful death attorney. My training, my practice, and my career all focus on that one small area of the law. If you asked me to resolve a contract dispute, I would have to respectfully decline, because there are other attorneys far more skilled and experienced with that particular area of the law.
While most people understand how vast a field like the law or medicine is, I think many do not appreciate that the same applies to investigations. The average person hears that the police investigated a crash and they probably think, "a police investigation is the best there is." If we're talking about a crime like murder or theft, then that is absolutely correct. If you need the best criminal investigation, the police are who you want investigating.
This is also why you don't want to place too much faith in the a police accident investigation. I'm not breaking any news when I say that the primary role of law enforcement is to enforce laws. They're looking for crimes. As such, their mission, training, and resources are generally dedicated to that one goal. For the most part, they're only involved in the crash investigation business because sometimes crashes result from a crime.
Now don't get me wrong, my criticism isn't that police are bad at their job. Instead, I believe that it's misguided to rely on their crash investigation expertise, when that is not what we want police to be doing 90% of the time. All of this is to say that it's no slight to tell people that they should feel free to question police crash investigations and seek out an investigation better-suited to their needs. For most people, that need is gathering the evidence necessary to prove that the other party is responsible for the wreck that injured them or killed a loved one.
Common Evidence Police Miss When Investigating a Crash
Most crashes result from negligence, not a crime, which means that many common causes of crashes fall outside of what police look for at the scene of a crash. Some of these include:
- Vehicle Defects — Generally speaking, unless a part experiences a catastrophic failure, like the Takata airbags that shot metal fragments into drivers' chests, usually on-site crash investigators will not be able to spot a crash caused by a manufacturing defect. This is especially true for design-related crashes, where a part of the vehicle fails to perform as it should during a collision.
- Malfunctioning Truck Safety Equipment — This can include anything from crash avoidance technology (CAT) to reflective tape. For instance, I received a call about an incident where a police investigation blamed a woman for crashing into the side of an 18-wheeler at night. The problem was that the 18-wheeler had just turned out of a parking lot and at the time of the collision, the reflective tape was angled in such a way that it didn't reflect light towards motorists approaching from behind.
- Drivers' Cell Phone Data — Unless a driver admits they were on their phone or allows police to examine it on site, it's surprisingly difficult to prove that distracted driving occurred. There was a case I litigated a few years ago, where a truck rear-ended my client on a highway. The police report put my client at fault for an "unsafe lane change" and did not mention anything about cell phone usage. When we subpoenaed the trucker's cell phone, the data showed he was watching porn at the time of the collision, which was the real cause of the crash.
- Crash Scene Mapping — Despite its importance for crash reconstruction, 3D-laser scanning at crash scenes is not standard procedure in most police crash investigations. In fact, many investigators don't have the equipment or training needed to 3D map a crash scene.
- Engine Control Module Data — Every modern vehicle has a computer onboard. That computer or engine control module (ECM) serves to keep engines running optimally. It also records events such as speed, braking, and seatbelt use, which is all vital data in a proper crash investigation. Unfortunately, most police crash investigators don't even have the equipment to retrieve ECM data. In commercial accidents, I've even seen situations where investigators ask the trucking company to pull their own data and provide it to investigators. That would be like an officer asking a murder suspect to dust his own weapon for prints.
In most instances, this missing evidence doesn't impact an investigator's ability to determine whether or not a crime occurred. Unfortunately for crash victims, all of this evidence is part of proving their case against the driver who hit them. Worse still is the fact that so many people mistakenly believe that authorities gather this evidence as part of their investigation.
Expert 3rd-Party Investigations Are What Victims Need
In the authorities' defense, most traffic collisions are minor. Bringing all investigative tools to bear in a fender bender without injuries is a waste of time and resources. It would be like calling a forensics team to a jaywalking crime scene. As these are the most common crashes, it's understandable that police investigators are trained and equipped to deal with situations that occur most frequently.
This obviously creates a problem for the victims of crashes involving serious injuries or deaths. In many instances, police not only ignore, but don't even have the means to gather the information crucial for making a victim's case.
Thankfully, it is possible to obtain and expert 3rd-party investigation. Over the years, my firm has initiated thousands of these kinds of investigations. While they can be expensive, most reputable firms (including mine) only recover the costs of these investigations if they result in a successful claim against the other motorist. If we look into the case and determine that the evidence doesn't support moving forward, then it doesn't cost the client a dime.
At the end of the day, it's important for victims of serious accidents, particularly those involving commercial vehicles to get the best investigation for their situation. Unfortunately, due to the amount of evidence that authorities miss, the best investigation is often not a police investigation.