Forensic engineering investigation of a fatal MVA

(The following is one in a series of cases I have investigated that illustrate the different forensic engineering methods I use to investigate the cause of failures and accidents that result in civil litigation.  The methods are listed in this blog and described in some detail in a future posting)

The investigation of the fatal motor vehicle accident (MVA) is reported under the following main headings with several sub-headings:

  • The case (a description of the fatal MVA, the legal/technical issues, and my client)
  • Forensic engineering investigation of the failure and the methods used
  • Preliminary findings of the investigation
  • Post mortem (resolution and lessons learned)

The case

Description of fatal motor vehicle accident (MVA)

The accident occurred a few years ago on a remote, snow-covered highway along the top of a seaside cliff in eastern Canada.  A jeep-like vehicle travelling along the highway at dawn struck a pile of soil-like material left in the travel lane.  The driver lost control of the vehicle and drove over the cliff and into the sea.  The driver died in the accident.  Passengers in the vehicle survived.

Legal/Technical issues

At issue, for purposes of the forensic engineering investigation, was the following:

  • Whether or not the pile of material on the highway was a hazard
  • If it was, determine the degree or severity of the hazard
  • Also, whether or not the pile of material caused the accident

Client

I was retained by the RCMP to investigate the accident and resolve the technical issues.

Forensic engineering investigation

There were no guidelines or well developed methods in the engineering literature on how to investigate this type of accident and resolve the technical issues.  The investigation was unique in this respect.

Fortunately, in researching the literature, I did find some very relevant scientific research that I was able to adapt to my problem with excellent results.

My forensic engineering investigation relied on the following methods.  The methods will be described in some detail in a future posting.  I believe the following listing of methods is quite informative by itself:

  1. Take briefing on the accident from RCMP
  2. Review documents on the accident provided by the RCMP including police reports and survivor’s statements
  3. Travel to the area and visually examine the scene of the accident
  4. Generate a picture of the accident scene using Photoshop as it might have been seen by the driver moments before the accident
  5. Research engineering literature for methods on the investigation of obstructions on a highway
  6. Research scientific literature on speed bump research and design
  7. Research transportation authorities in North America and Europe
  8. Design a full scale preliminary re-enactment of the accident on bare roads
  9. Plan a full scale re-enactment of the accident on a snow covered test site implementing refinements to the re-enactment including safety measures derived from the preliminary testing
  10. Design a videotaping and measuring of the re-enactment
  11. Construct a re-enactment site on an airport taxiway
  12. Re-enact and videotape the accident on the test site
  13. Analyse the videotape for evidence respecting the technical issues
  14. Edit the videotape to portray the re-enactment in a report
  15. Report on the preliminary findings including safety issues

Description of methods of forensic engineering investigation

(The methods will be described in some detail in a future blog posting)

Cause

(The findings of the investigation will be reported in a future posting)

Post mortem

The matter was settled out of court.

(Lessons learned from the investigation will be shared in the future blog posting)

References

1. “Technical” visual site assessments: Valuable, low cost, forensic engineering method.  My blog posted on this site, September 4, 2012

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