A recent two-car crash near Abingdon killed one person and injured three others. The news report contained only a sketchy account of how the accident happened. According to police, a vehicle pulled out on to Route 19; the car crossed the median and attempted to enter the northbound lane on Route 19. While making the turn, the driver of the car hit another car that was heading north. The impact of the crash sent the vehicle off the road and into a ditch. A 16-year-old passenger was taken to a nearby hospital, where he died from his injuries. The newspaper report concluded with the statement that “The Virginia State Police Crash Reconstruction Team is assisting with the ongoing crash investigation.”

Many news reports of auto and truck accidents end with a similar phrase, leaving readers to wonder about the exact nature of a crash investigation or, as it is often called, “accident reconstruction.” Accident reconstruction uses established principles of physics, chemistry and related sciences to stitch together a timeline for an accident that helps law enforcement officers understand how an accident occurred. Accident reconstruction experts are usually trained engineers who know how to examine an accident site, record the location of vehicles and debris and study the effects of the accident on the vehicles and any victims.

The accident reconstruction report is often be used by safety officials to recommend better road design and safety features for vehicles. They also assist in another important endeavor: providing expert testimony to support or defend against a lawsuit brought to recover damages. The accident reconstruction engineers use a multitude of scientific techniques in their work. The most basic technique is carefully measuring and photographing the accident scene. A second technique is analyzing information from vehicle information recorders. Since 2015, all vehicles are required have such a device on board. Engineers can use the data stored in such a device to understand the vehicle’s movements prior to the collision.

Careful measurement of the scene can also provide much useful information. Skid marks provide helpful clues about a vehicle’s speed. The distance that a vehicle travels after impact can also help engineers estimate the speed of the vehicle. Measuring the extent damage to a vehicle caused by the collision can help establish the direction and speed of the vehicle. The automotive industry and government safety agencies publish tables that correlate speed with any damage to a vehicle.

Accident reconstruction now incorporates modern techniques such as forensic animation and three-dimensional laser surveys. Laser surveying equipment is used to obtain a precise three-dimensional measurement of an accident site. The three-dimensional measurements can be used to construct a wire-mesh model of the roadway, surrounding land features and nearby buildings. Forensic animation can create a virtual movie of how the accident occurred.

Modern techniques of accident reconstruction have become an essential component in the courtroom toolbox of trial attorneys who litigate complex accident cases. In the hands of a capable personal injury attorney, an accident reconstruction can be an essential tool in presenting a winning case for damages.