Investigating Northamptonshire’s crashes

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Anyone who has endured the sad task of sitting in a public inquest examining the death of a crash victim will be familiar with just how thorough investigations by Northamptonshire Police’s Collision Investigation Team have to be.

With road deaths on the increase in the county this year (25 so far in 2012 compared to 19 in 2011), the team has been called out even more frequently to examine road sites and determine the cause of crashes.

The team has to be aware of everything that could have led to a collision, to ensure justice is done and, where necessary, charges can be brought against offenders.

Det Sgt Nick Gray said: “One thing we look at is whether a phone was in use at the time. We take on all fatal road traffic collisions that happen in the county and our remit is to take on all life-changing incidents, involving serious injuries which will change a person’s life.

“The initial response is by the Operational Tactical Unit; they do the initial responses to road traffic collisions. They will do an assessment and via our control room they will call in one of our team.”

Insp Nigel Rickaby, head of Road Policing Unit, said: “Nick’s job is to attend the scene, assess it and preserve it. We need it to be as original as possible. The first priority is to save lives so if the fire brigade need to come and take the roof off a vehicle then that has to be done.”

Sgt Gray said: “It is a very methodical approach which is why the public have to bear with us when road closures happen.

“The forensic collision investigators examine the scene and the potential evidence they can glean from that might be the point of impact; if a car goes sideways across a road there may be tyre tracks, for example.

“They will also focus on poor road surfaces, lack of lighting, all these things have to be considered.

“Vehicles are subjected to a methodical examination and we look for any factors which could have contributed to the accident, have drugs or alcohol played a part?

“Were seatbelts being worn? There are signs to looks for. We can also ask for telephone records but we have to also consider the interference with that person’s private life.

“If there are marks on the road we can use them but there aren’t always. If vehicles have been moved it makes it difficult.

“Time isn’t really a factor, we do the job as effectively as we can, we are under no pressure to open a road. The ‘golden hour’ is the time when there is an initial trawl and preserving of evidence. Once the traffic is flowing again you have lost that opportunity.”

Equipment used in collision investigation is advancing all the time and the unit has recently acquired an £140,000 piece of laser technology which enables officers to take a scan of a complete collision scene.

Pc Keith Millard, forensic collision investigator, said: “We recover any evidence we can and then we carry out a survey of the scene. We now have a new laser scanning device and everything it hits it records.

“This tells you everything, it will go through glass and it has a range of 450 metres. We can crop and pan to to see a particular section of a crash scene. It produces a detailed plan.”

But this does not mean that human analysis of crash scenes is thrown out.

Pc Millard said: “The human interpretation is probably far more important than relying on one piece of equipment, it is just another tool.”

CRACKING DOWN ON THE MAIN ‘FATAL 4’ CRASH CAUSES

SPEEDING, using a mobile phone while driving, failing to wear a seatbelt and being over the legal alcohol limit; these are the “Fatal 4” causes of most road crashes.

And this year police teams have been focusing their efforts on cracking down on these specific types of offence as part of a Fatal 4 campaign.

I ventured out on the road with Pc Vanessa Spence and Pc Richard Bathe of the Road Policing Unit (RPU), in a police vehicle kitted out with ANPR cameras.

These officers have been involved with the Fatal 4 campaign and on this occasion we search for people using their mobiles while driving; as well as responding to other alerts triggered by the ANPR devices.

Parked on a side road off Wellingborough Road we see two drivers whizz past while chatting on mobiles. On this occasion we are not successful in catching them but, according to the officers, it is common to see motorists flauting the law.

Pc Bathe said: “Quite a few of my colleagues have dealt with people who have been using a mobile phone, we had one girl who was on her mobile phone and kids were crossing the road.”

Insp Nigel Rickaby, head of RPU, said: “We have looked at fatal incidents closely and most are down to driver errors or drink has been involved or there has been mobile phone usage. Mobile phone usage is significant. There are so many people now driving and holding a phone and some seem to be professionals. Some big companies have the policy where employees have to keep their phones in the boot of their cars.

But he added: “We have done the analyses of the fatal collisions this year, but there isn’t one clear reason why they have happened.”