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Investigating Fatal Accidents

(updated May 5th, 2009)

When you are driving and trouble strikes, there is never any warning. You have a split second to react in a way that could save your life and the lives of your passengers. If you are fiddling with the radio or talking on a cell phone or just looking away from the road, that split second is lost. And so, perhaps, is your life.

Ken Gonyea, accident investigations detective for the Long Beach Police Department, knows this danger all too well. It's his job to go to the scene of fatal traffic accidents in this Southern California city of a half million people and determine what caused them. Inattention, in different forms, is the culprit in many fatal traffic accidents.

"The cars these days are so luxurious they create a false sense of security," Gonyea said. "Inside, the car is very comfortable. Plus, stereos are better than they've ever been. Now you can even watch DVD movies. Really, it's like sitting on your living room couch. It's difficult for people to think they really can get killed very easily [while in this seemingly safe environment]."

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At the Scene of a Fatal Accident
When a fatal accident is reported, Gonyea is dispatched to the scene to investigate. His findings may result in prosecution and are likely to be used in an ensuing civil law suit. "Generally, as the result of a death, someone will sue somebody, unless the violation is obviously on the deceased," he said.

The charges brought against drivers involved in fatal accidents range from vehicular manslaughter to felony manslaughter (in the case of a drunk driver). Even murder charges are possible if the driver has had previous drunk driving arrests.

The scene of a fatal traffic accident is taped off to preserve evidence. "It is handled like a homicide scene," Gonyea said. "It is photographed and all the evidence is carefully collected."

Skid Marks: Key Evidence
One indicator of how the accident occurred is revealed by measuring skid marks left on the road surface by the cars. "We can tell from the skid marks how fast you were going," Gonyea said, "We can tell how fast the other car was going. We can tell an amazing amount of information just from the skid marks. The point of arrest [of the cars] will also tell us a lot. The amount of damage to the vehicles is another indicator of how fast they were going."

Once the skid marks are measured, Gonyea uses various formulas to compute how fast the car was traveling. It's important to take into consideration the "drag factor" of the concrete or asphalt, whether it is raining or snowing and if the surface is sloped.

"It is all algebra," Gonyea explained. "The calculations are real accurate — they all stand up in court. Physics professors will come and challenge them but they always stand up."

Furthermore, investigators give the benefit of doubt to the driver. "We won't say 'you were going 100 miles per hour.' We say, 'You were going a minimum of 90 miles per hour.'" For more about skid marks and automobile speed, use this skid calculator.

A Personal Tragedy

Gonyea has been with the police department for 10 years, seven of which were spent in patrol where he was the responding officer in numerous traffic accidents. "For the most part, it got to the point where I could roll up on a scene and, even before I got out of my car, I could look at the scene and figure out what happened."

However, nothing prepared Gonyea for what happened several years ago. In Riverside County, California, a young man fell asleep at the wheel, crossed the center divider and struck a car carrying Gonyea's father, stepmother and sister-in-law. They were all killed. The driver of the other car pleaded guilty and was charged with three counts of vehicular manslaughter.

"My parents were just driving down the road — they weren't doing anything wrong," Gonyea said. "They were obeying the speed limit, they had their safety belts on and somebody hit them head-on."

This personal experience has motivated Gonyea to remind drivers of their enormous responsibility every time they get behind the wheel.

In other cases, people may be psychologically scarred for life by their own actions. "We had a case recently where a 16-year-old girl ran into an elderly woman and the elderly woman died. It wasn't the girl's fault. But, it's sad because the poor girl has to live with that. I think it's just human nature to feel guilty to some degree."

In extreme situations, you could even find yourself hit with a prison sentence due to a traffic accident. "There is a difference between negligence and gross negligence," Gonyea explained. "Negligence means you might not have looked into your side mirror when you should have. Gross negligence means that you were drinking or taking prescription medicine that clearly stated you shouldn't drive. But you got behind the wheel anyway and someone died as a result of a vehicle code violation. That's vehicular manslaughter and your chances of going to prison are pretty good, even if you've never committed a crime before."

Traffic Tickets Are a Deterrent
When people find out Gonyea is a police officer, they often tell him about traffic tickets they've received. He has noticed that they seem to be able to recall everything about the traffic stop. But when he asks them how long ago this was, they might say, "'Oh, seven years ago…' The point is, people remember citations. I've been pulled over three or four times and I remember all those. So, do I think traffic citations work [in teaching people to be safer drivers]? Absolutely."

To become a safer driver, Gonyea offered this advice:

  • When you come to an intersection, don't just look straight ahead, look all around. Don't just look at the car in front of you, look at the car in front of it.
  • Don't follow too closely. If the car in front brakes unexpectedly, you have more time to react if you have more space.
  • Pay more attention, be more courteous.
  • Use a "hands-free" device if you have to talk on the cell phone.
  • Be alert for other drivers who are acting recklessly.
  • Change your attitude — slow down, relax and take your time getting to your destination.

As a result of the accidents Gonyea has seen, "I'm an incredibly defensive driver. I'm extremely courteous. I give the car in front of me lots of room. I'm always looking to see who is a potential problem."

Part of Gonyea's job is dealing with the family of victims killed in car crashes. "When someone dies in a car accident it doesn't really bother me that much, because they're dead, their problems are over. But everyone has family and friends. Sometimes they can have hundreds of people directly affected by their death. Those people, I have nothing but compassion for. I know because [when my parents and sister-in-law were killed] I was one of those people who had to talk to an investigating officer. That's another reason I went into this job, because of the human factor, because I feel for those people."

Shopping for Safety
As far as safety features on today's cars, Gonyea thinks that airbags really offer the best protection in the event of an accident. However, he's still a big believer in seatbelts.

Gonyea agreed that it's important to check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) crash test scores before making a final selection for a car. "Unfortunately, I don't think many people shop for a car with safety in mind. They're looking for speed, they're looking for comfort, they're looking for style."

Soon, Gonyea might have to shop for a car for his 15-and-a-half-year-old daughter. "She told me she wants a Jeep Wrangler with no doors on it. Yeah, that would be fun," he said, smiling. Then he added, "But I'd like to get her a tank."

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