Crash Reconstructionist Uses Animations In Courtroom Presentations

The use of 3D crash diagrams and animations can make a huge difference in presenting the details of a crash, especially in the courtroom. Lorne Starks, retired from the LAPD and a veteran crash reconstructionist, investigates crashes all over the country.  The members of his California-based firm, D&S Investigations, have collectively investigated over 30,000 traffic collisions and have reconstructed and provided opinions on more than 8000 traffic collisions. He finds that deploying animations is an ideal way to explain the events of a crash.

Starks has given expert testimony in more than 275 court cases involving traffic accident reconstruction, accident causation, damage analysis, and collision factors. He knows what evidence to look for at a crash scene and how it must be depicted in a diagram and animation. Given his lengthy experience investigating crash scenes and offering court testimony, what does he see are his biggest challenges? “Most of them have to do with measurements and physical evidence,” Starks said. “We find most reports we get do not document enough of the physical evidence. The challenge we have is trying to come up with different points of impact or different types of physical evidence such as skid marks, gouges, and the point of rest. This can be difficult, especially at a busy intersection” Starks said.

When he finally gets to a crash scene to be investigated, the scene could be a couple of weeks to a year old. “When we get out there, we rely a lot on photographs, and then you’re looking at reference points in the roadway—a crack or a painted line—and from there we can measure and document debris and physical evidence.”

Starks maps his scenes using an LTI TruPulse 360R mapping laser. For data collection, he uses Pocket Zone data collection software from The CAD Zone, which is compatible with the LTI laser measurement equipment. The Pocket Zone is used on a handheld computer to record the data points collected by the laser system. Starks uses Pocket Zone to create a basic diagram right at the scene, so he knows all the data is recorded. Once the scene is completely documented, Starks can then transfer all of his evidence points from Pocket Zone into The Crash Zone software on his desktop computer to complete the diagrams and animations.

Animations Created by Starks

Starks uses Crash Zone to create animations, which, he emphasizes, is very easy to do. The animations shown here are actual animations that  Starks created for a case he  investigated.  He comments about the crash, “These two animations are of a crash where a vehicle ran a stop sign and broadsided the other vehicle.  The first version was the driver’s description, but it was found to be incorrect. The Actual Impact animation (second video) is the correct version of how the impact occurred.” Starks used the animations as a visual aid to show the results of his reconstruction.

Satellite Photos Enhance Crash Animations

Starks likes to import a satellite photo from Google Earth of the crash scene into Crash Zone and uses that photo as a background for the crash scene diagram and animation.

Next, he places “Key Event Points” (KEPs) to show, according to the evidence collected, each point where the vehicles changed speed or direction. The animation is created by telling Crash Zone to move the vehicles (or any other symbols) through a path that connects each of the KEPs, changing rotation as necessary.

animation-steps

Just draw the path of the object you wish to animate and place Key Event Points, all based on your exact measurements.

Animation point list

 

The investigator can easily validate the animations they create in Crash Zone so they can defend their accuracy in the courtroom. The information associated with each KEP can be saved to a .csv file that can be opened as a spreadsheet. Each frame of the animation (up to 100 frames per minute) can be saved as a static image to use in a report or presentation. The investigator can also use these images to verify that the vehicles pass exactly through each evidence point.

 

Crash Zone Animations
Can Show the
Drivers’ View

It’s easy to create multiple animations from different points of view, even the driver’s. Starks explains, “Crash Zone let’s you place the camera (for creating an animation) anywhere you want in the scene. So, for example, you can place the camera showing the driver’s perspective as it’s approaching an intersection, and this shows what the driver would actually see”.

Of course, it’s typical for there to be conflicting statements from drivers involved in an accident, most often claiming something was blocking the driver’s view just before the crash occurred. “With an accurate animation, you can show a camera in one car approaching where the collision occurred, and then you can switch the camera over to the other car and turn it as though the driver is turning his head to see the approach of the vehicle,” Starks continued. “In this way, you see when the approaching vehicle is first visible and you’re able to determine the distance. This will validate whether or not something was blocking the driver’s view,” Starks said.

Crash Zone Animations Are Ideal for Court

Whenever Starks investigates a case that is headed for court, he automatically will build an animation of the scene. Starks claims it takes only about one hour to create a simple animation in Crash Zone.  He explains that he likes to start with getting a satellite image, “because when you bring up an intersection in Google Earth, the image is normally accurate and full size”. He explains, “I’ll go to an intersection, take a few measurements–like the width of a lane or some fixed object from a curb to a pole. That way, I can apply it to the satellite image to make sure it’s scaled correctly,” Starks continued. “Then, I use these measurements in Crash Zone and I can actually set up an animation to use right over the satellite photo of the intersection. This works great when juries are looking at it.”

Not too long ago, animations were often barred from courtrooms, viewed as being too subjective and one-sided. But in recent years, software like The Crash Zone, has made it possible to create animations that are accurate and credible. The reconstructionist doesn’t use an animation to figure out what happened, instead they use animation as a way to show others what they believe happened, based on the evidence they gathered at the scene and their expert reconstruction of the events.

As for Starks, he will keep creating animations for any crashes where he is presenting the case in a courtroom. After all, Starks concludes, “The animation is like a moving picture; it shows the jurors a logical view of what occurred with the vehicles in a crash.”

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