‘Black Box’ Aiding Car Crash Investigators
For police officers investigating serious traffic accidents, marks on the road and damage to a car can help tell the story of how the wreck happened. Evidence at the site can indicate when a driver hit the brakes or when the car skidded off the side of the road.
Now, Macon police have a new tool to aid in their fatal crash investigations.
This small box made by Bosch is used by law enforcement to decipher the data continually collected by the computers of late model cars and to help them recreate what a driver was doing as far back as 28 seconds before a crash.
Macon police can use a crash data retrieval system for vehicles to tap into a vehicle’s computer after a wreck, much like the “black boxes” that airplane crash investigators check.
Newer model vehicles have computerized parts that control the air bag, brakes and power train, generating data the entire time the car is operating. When the vehicle’s computer senses that a crash is imminent and safety measures need to be deployed, the components record what’s going on inside the car, traffic fatality investigator Austin Riley said.
“It’s to tell me what that car was doing and what that driver was doing,” said Riley, who underwent a week of training on the system after the department purchased it in April. Equipment and training cost about $7,000.
Data can be downloaded by connecting cables to the car at the crash site or by removing the computerized components and hooking them up to a computer later.
Among the details investigators can determine using the downloaded information are the speed of the car in the moments before a wreck, how much pressure was on the gas pedal, when the brakes were activated, whether seat belts were being worn and whether someone was sitting in the passenger seat, Riley said.
But the data doesn’t replace the evidence that officers find at crash sites.
“You just have another tool added to your arsenal,” Riley said.
The crash data retrieval system gives officers an opportunity to download data from vehicles produced as early as 1997.
While the system is new to Macon police, the Georgia State Patrol’s five Specialized Collision Reconstruction Teams have been using the devices for at least a decade, said Capt. Tharon Dukes, the unit’s commander.
More and more car manufacturers are making crash data available in light of the National Highway Safety Administration mandate that all cars with air bags be equipped to provide the data by 2012, Dukes said.
When the state patrol first started using the technology, troopers could only connect to some General Motors vehicles. Since then, Ford, Chrysler, Subaru and most recently Toyota have become accessible.
Computer components making up the passenger car version of a black box are “hardy” and survive most every crash, Dukes said.
Macon police haven’t yet had an opportunity to use the device in investigating a traffic fatality since there haven’t been any since Riley completed training in September. So far in 2011, the department has investigated seven fatal crashes, compared with 23 in 2010.
In Houston County, sheriff’s Cpl. Sean Alexander has been downloading data both for official use and for use in his private business investigating car crashes for about 10 years.
When Warner Robins sisters Bridget and Leslie Sullivent died in a tragic March 9 car crash in Bonaire, Alexander used downloaded data from the car to determine that 17-year-old Leslie Sullivent had over-corrected in her steering. Sullivent was driving a 2007 Pontiac G6 when she abruptly steered and slid across the road, where she collided with a sport utility vehicle.
While it’s clear that the technology doesn’t provide a complete synopsis of a crash, “it’s a lot better than saying ‘I don’t know,’ ’’ Alexander said.