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Paul Abelson

It can be one of the toughest aspects of a fleet manager's job: What do you do when a driver does everything right, but still is found to be wrong?

For example, a driver of a ready-mix truck is returning from a jobsite on a busy highway. He's driving at the speed limit in the right lane. A car rushes past, then swerves in front of the truck, trying to go on an exit ramp. The car's driver brakes hard just as he enters the lane to slow down enough to make the exit.

In fact, the car's driver leaves only about 15 feet in front of the ready-mix truck. Your employee hits the car before his foot can even lift off the gas pedal.

When the police investigate the crash, they cite your driver for following too closely because the car was struck from behind, and naturally they take that motorist's word. Before you get a chance to intercede, the officer has written his report and says to your driver to “tell it to the judge.” Can you defend the driver?

Fortunately, there's help. Fleet managers can call on a rapidly increasing number of experts called accident reconstructionists, also referred to as “forensic engineers.” Many of these experts are retired police investigators who can recreate vehicle incidents such as these. Although they're not at the scene, they can assemble evidence and use computer simulation to present a recreation of the incident that will stand up in court.

Forensic engineers are not cheap. If there is no injury involved, it may be better, or at least less costly, to settle the damages and accept the court's judgment. But when injuries or deaths are involved, your insurance provider may insist on hiring a forensic engineer.

To reconstruct, the engineers examine every aspect of the incident. They go over every photograph of the scene, making special note of fixed reference points such as sign posts, street lamps, guardrail posts, and even cracks or patches in the pavement. These not only set the scene, they serve as fixed references for subsequent surveys of the area.

Photo evidence

In documenting an accident scene, many experts suggest it's best to take photographs using film rather than digital cameras. Many judges believe film and negatives are less likely to be altered. That's why it is always a good idea to have a disposable camera in the glove box or cab. Instruct your people to take as many photos of the area as possible. They should take several overviews and close-ups of all damage from several angles. The photos can help your case.

To do an accurate reconstruction, the engineers also examine the wrecked vehicles, if possible. While you'd like to get your truck back in service as soon as possible, it's important to have an independent inspection of the vehicle. Also have your mechanic save any damaged parts.

If the reason for an accident is complex, forensic engineers may buy and wreck dozens of parts or sub-structures to adjust and confirm calculations of a potential part failure. They want results to match what actually occurred.