By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – New vehicle crash site investigation technology is changing the game for how wrecks are examined and then possibly presented in court.
Much of the technology has only been used in Alabama for less than five years but the difference in how fast the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency can analyze a scene and the level of accuracy in evidence shown to juries has improved the process immensely, investigators say.
“Between then and now, there is just no comparison,” ALEA officer and certified crash reconstructionist Philip Faulkner said recently.
Troopers showcased the technology to reporters and explained how crash sites are typically investigated from the first phone call reporting the crash until evidence is shown in court.
One of the newest tools is the FARO Focus Laser Scanner that takes 3D images of a scene in just a few minutes and can scan at a distance of more than 200 feet. The images captured can later create a 3D model of the crash site that can be used in court and shown through virtual reality goggles to jurors.
“Instead of carrying the jury to the crime scene, we bring the scene to the jury,” Faulkner said.
The scanner helps record data points that officers may not even be able to pick up while at the scene and enables investigators to review a crash from every possible angle long after it has been cleaned up.
Drones have been another useful tool at crash sites, enabling the capture of aerial views of a scene, which has cut down what would have been a five-to-six-hour process of gathering evidence to about an hour.
“A lot of time it gives you a whole different perspective of how the crash took place,” said ALEA trooper Joey Hamilton, a trained drone pilot.
Drones also reduce the time officers have to be at the scene and therefore speeds up the clean-up process as well.
“We keep a lot of personnel off the highway now,” Hamilton said.
The agency has about 27 drones of various sizes statewide and about 6 scanners. The scanner and drones have only been in use across the state since about 2019.
The drones can also be used in manhunt situations and can be deployed quickly when needed. They also have zoom and wide-angle lenses as well as thermal detection abilities.
Faulkner explained to reporters that all of the pieces of technology help his team create the best possible picture of how the crash happened and why.
“In order to investigate it and to get the clear picture, you have to become that scene,” Faulkner said. “You have to take it personal because we want to answer those two questions and we want to be the voice of every victim.”
Faulkner is a part of a team that takes all of the data points and images gathered by the ALEA troopers and site investigators, they validate the data and then present their findings to the courts.
His work also includes interviewing all of the drivers, victims, emergency responders and witnesses that are part of a scene and evaluating the mental and physical state of the drivers involved, even going as far back as what the drivers were doing 24 hours prior to the crash.
How long investigations take can vary greatly with some of the simplest crashes involving one vehicle and a fatal injury to a passenger taking typically 30 days minimum.
Faulkner said that even though a scene may be cleaned up or moved quickly does not mean that an investigation is going to end quickly.
“A lot of our citizens think, ‘Oh, they cleaned up a scene in 20 minutes and it’s done,'” Faulkner said. “No, that’s not even the beginning. You eat, sleep and breathe these cases.”
How crash investigations are conducted in Alabama has especially come into view recently after the deadly June I-65 accident that killed 10 people, including eight children from a youth home.
Agency officer Jeremy Burkett said that the amount of work that goes on for a crash investigation can often be unseen and will take as long as needed.
“We’re going to work until we find the facts,” Burkett said.
The crash is still being investigated and ALEA is still accepting photos and videos taken by people at the crash site.
A preliminary report on the crash last month from the National Transportation Safety Board said the wreck happened after a tractor-trailer truck slammed into vehicles that had slowed down because of minor crashes on the rain-slicked highway.