Car-Crash Investigators Partner With Computers

D.C. Detective Mike Miller, center, consults with Secret Service officers while gathering crime scene evidence with electronic devices.
D.C. Detective Mike Miller, center, consults with Secret Service officers while gathering crime scene evidence with electronic devices. (Photos By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 3, 2005

D.C. police Detective Mike Miller felt anxious as he and other officers huddled around a computer and waited for data to spill from a "black box" recovered from a car involved in a wreck that killed a 49-year-old financial adviser.

Just a decade ago, detectives investigating traffic accidents would analyze skid marks with tape measures, rulers and special wheels. They painstakingly plotted the data on graph paper and sometimes had to ask graphic artists to render a scene for a court exhibit. Now they use lasers and computer analyses that measure and map the split-second anatomy of a crash.

And, like their counterparts in aviation circles, they are turning to black boxes -- event data recorders that carmakers have tucked into millions of vehicles. The recorders can be a treasure for police: They can reveal the speed, braking and throttle of vehicles in the seconds before impact. The black boxes are no secret within the auto industry, but many motorists remain unaware of them.

As the computer screen flashed to life, Miller leaned forward. He wondered whether his earlier calculations about the cars' speeds -- based on the lasers and computer analysis of the scene -- would prove to be correct. He knew that the black box's data could be the key in moving forward with a homicide case.

The moment highlighted the evolving nature of traffic investigations. With the help of lasers, Miller and other investigators can calculate distances to within a 10th of an inch. Computer databases provide reams of information about how cars react when struck. Software allows investigators to create maps.

The emerging technology "has made the job more technical and more professional," said Miller, who has been investigating car crashes for 13 of his 15 years on the force. "It's a new realm."

Miller and Detective Joseph Diliberto said the advances have helped them get to the bottom of a greater percentage of the city's fatal accidents. Last year, the city had 45 traffic deaths.

"It can help sway an investigation one way or another," said Diliberto, who has helped reconstruct fatal crashes since 1991. "It can help define whether there is criminal culpability."

Most of the area's suburban departments are using the same new tools. Arlington County and Virginia State Police investigators used a laser device to help map the scene of a school bus crash that killed two children and injured 15 others in April.

In Fairfax County, where police investigated 61 fatal crashes last year, officers said the technology helps them keep pace with cars that are more apt to have anti-lock brakes, air bags and traction-control devices. "As the level of sophistication that exists in the automobile increases, investigators have to keep up with the technology," said Sgt. Pat Wimberly, who supervises Fairfax's accident investigators.

The Washington Post trailed Miller as he investigated several traffic accidents, including his follow-up work on the one that killed the financial adviser Nov. 30. Despite the technology, the cases can be time-consuming: It was not until last month that a man was indicted on a second-degree murder charge in that collision.

Miller was asleep at home early Nov. 30 when he was called to report to Park Place and Irving Street NW, the site of the accident. When he got there, he learned that a Buick LeSabre had zipped through a red light and crashed broadside into a Mercury Grand Marquis about 12:55 a.m., according to police officers and witnesses.

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