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What is accident reconstruction?

Traffic accidents usually happen in a few seconds. As a result, people in the colliding vehicles do not accurately perceive what is happening. For the same reasons, witnesses' accounts can be unreliable. Many media accounts of car accidents end with the statement that police are continuing their investigation. What, exactly, are they investigating?

Post-accident investigations ordinarily focus on "reconstructing" the accident; that is, describing the events that caused the accident, the events of the accident itself and any significant post-collision events, such as roll-overs and flips. Accident reconstruction is the use of various scientific techniques to understand and describe the exact series of events that comprise the accident.

The first step in any accident reconstruction investigation is the recording of the post-accident scene by photography and videography. The scene is usually carefully measured. For example, the length of skid marks can be helpful in determining both the pre- and post-accident speeds of the colliding vehicles. The make and model of each vehicle involved is noted so that investigators, by referring to industry publications, can determine the weight and resistance to physical impact of each vehicle. Once the necessary data is gathered, investigators use several mathematical formulae and algorithms to process the data and thereby determine the vehicles' speed, forces created by the accident and the effect of the collision on people in the vehicles.

Accident reconstruction can be a valuable aid in understanding how an accident happened and which parties may be at fault for the collision. Most police departments have a permanent staff of accident reconstruction experts. Knowledgeable trial lawyers who handle auto accident cases frequently hire independent accident reconstruction experts to aid them in presenting the details of an accident to the jury.

Source: Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, "Crash Investigation and Reconstruction," accessed on Sept. 30, 2017

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