Collecting Evidence from the Scene of a Road Crash
Be Prepared and Equipped to Collect Evidence
Before you are involved in an accident, please be sure you have the following before you go on a trip:
- A reliable Pen or Pencil, and a white writing pad, at least an A-5 in size.
- One yellow or white wax crayon, for marking vehicle locations.
- A disposable camera with at least 36 exposures, for photographing evidence and damage.
- A torch with fresh batteries - preferably with more than two batteries of any size.
- A cheap reflective jacket, in case you have to flag down traffic or assist others.
- As many blankets as possible (at least three) - preferably “space blankets.”
- The First-aid kit with many bandages (at least ten) and (at least twenty) dressings.
- Air-time on your phone, in case you need help and cannot reach emergency services.
- Water (at least two litres), in case you need to wash wounds, rinse battery acid or douse a fire.
- An emergency triangle to prevent a further accident, when you have already had one.
Safety at the Scene of the Road Crash/Accident
Now, when you have had an accident, and are able to move around, or if you come across an accident and wish to help:
- your safety comes first. If you are injured or run over, you can help nobody else.
- Wear your reflective jacket (day or night), and place the triangle at a safe distance.
- Mark the location of vehicles and victims, at the outer corners, not at the wheels.
- If anyone bleeds, apply pressure, unless the blood comes from ears or mouth.
- Apply dressings to any cuts and open wounds, to attempt to stop bleeding.
- Ensure that victims have a clear airway, that they can breathe and that blood can circulate.
- Do not move any patients, and make them as comfortable as possible where they are.
- If there are injuries or entrapments phone the ambulance service first, and then the police.
- Do not move or touch anything unless you are trying to save a life or prevent further injury or death.
- Photograph all vehicles from at least four sides, and any marks leading up to each car, but first, get permission from police or traffic if they are present before you start taking your photographs, but never take photographs of any bodies at the scene unless they are completely covered.
- If you need permission to take photographs (of your own accident or any other scene) be certain to inform police or traffic officials of your intent to do so and reassure them that you will not be photographing bodies.
- If you are refused the opportunity to take photo’s get the name, rank, force number and station of the person/s refusing you this right, but remember that the ability to take photographs applies as a right only to your own accident, and only if it is not a culpable homicide (loss of life) scene.
- Attempt to get the names, addresses, phone numbers and, if possible ID numbers of all drivers, passengers and witnesses.
- Write down the injuries of each person by asking if they are hurt, or by observing for yourself. This may become very important later.
- For all involved cars take the make, model, colour and registration numbers, and date of expiry of license disks.
- Write down the damage to each vehicle, including where it is, approximately how deep it is, and how you think it was caused.
- Supply all the above information about you to all other drivers present and involved.
- If there is a risk to public safety, such as another accident possibly happening, you may legally move a car, but only if this will not endanger entrapped patients’ lives, and only if the position of the vehicle has been clearly marked.
- You can only do so much. Accept it, do your best, and stay calm. Accidents are stressful events, do not add to the problem by acting in a way that adds to the tension there. Again - stay calm!
- Although you have a lot on your mind and maybe helping others, do not lose sight of your own safety. Keep your eye on traffic, and remain vigilant against approaching cars that may run into you or the scene.
What to expect from emergency services
When emergency services arrive, expect the following:
- Tow truck services might be the first to arrive. Unless they are qualified to or offer it, they are not there to render medical assistance - don’t expect it.
- Tow trucks are your first line of defence against further accidents. Let them park behind you or the accident scene at a safe distance and turn on their amber lights.
- Unless you have a specific Tow-in service provider, take the first tow truck drivers business card and keep it. You may need to explain who was first later - this is how they operate.
- If and when an Ambulance or a rescue or fire vehicle arrives, tell them how many and where the patients are first, what injuries you observed, and, as briefly as possible, how you may have treated injuries.
- Make the medical professionals aware of the injuries that are life-threatening first, then those that involve fractures (broken bones), and lastly those that are less serious. Include yourself in the last group if you are moving around.
- If requested, supply the medical personnel with at least the first names only of victims, if you have this information available.
- When paramedics treat patients, they ask questions to establish the level of consciousness of patients. Do not try to assist by answering on behalf of patients, unless you are specifically addressed with questions.
- When the police or traffic arrives, they will first wish to establish the extent and seriousness of the accident.
- Whenever possible, do not give full narratives of the accident to any callers on the phone. You or information you have may be needed urgently by officials and other concerned parties might try to get hold of you. Limit your call content to the extent of injuries, and end the call.
- Inform the police or traffic of any possible (or suspected) fatalities, as well as where you saw the bodies.
- Tell police or traffic what you had to move, relocate, break or remove in order to render First Aid or assistance.
- Tell police or traffic of any photographs you may have taken to ensure that they could get hold of you if these could be of assistance later.
- Supply police or traffic with the details of involved parties, the damage to the vehicles, and identify the drivers or owners of the vehicles for them.
- Next, the police or traffic may cordon off the area around the scene of the accident. If you were involved in the accident, remain inside this area. If not, leave the area, unless you are specifically requested to stay.
- Next, the Ambulance, rescue, fire, police, traffic and tow-in services might all take your details and particulars.
- From the time you had the accident, to the time everyone has arrived, taken all details, interviewed you, removed your car and allow you to leave several hours may have passed, dependent on the seriousness of the accident. Be calm and patient - especially where lives were lost.
- Before leaving the scene, be sure that the Ambulance Personnel, the Police and Traffic Officers and the Firefighters have your name and contact details.
Although the above serve to provide guidelines for possible accident victims, each scene may be unique in its dynamics. If you need any advice after having been involved in an accident, you can contact Stan Bezuidenhout at the details below.
Stanley S Bezuidenhout
Forensic Road Transport and Risk Expert
Crash Guys International
When you are involved in an accident, many things will happen - some very rapidly, others will seem to drag on forever.
In spite of the shock, surprise, disappointment, regrets, guilt and intimidation felt by accident victims, and the fear of being involved in them, most people have no clue as to what might, will, could or should happen at accident scenes.
This piece is written to prepare you - the potential accident victim - for what should take place at an accident scene.
Considering the above, and the likelihood of you having to submit an insurance claim, defend yourself against a claim or ultimately face a culpable homicide charge, we will focus specifically on what police and traffic authorities are supposed to do. Any deviation from what appears below should be the reason for concern.
Enforcement and what to Expect on the Scene of a Road Crash
This also only ultimately applied to very serious accident scenes and/or those where there is a loss of life:
- Firstly, the scene should be cordoned off, and no uninvolved parties allowed inside the demarcated area.
- Only emergency personnel, official investigators and victims should be allowed in this area, while all onlookers, non-essential personnel (uninvolved police, traffic, fire and ambulance personnel not contributing or working in the scene) should be outside the demarcated area.
- At any very serious or fatal accident scene, the police should be in charge of the scene, since a criminal docket will likely be opened.
- Police or Traffic (depending on who actually handles the scene) should complete an AR form at the scene.
- Only in very slight (Fender Bender) accidents should police or traffic officials “refer parties to the nearest police station.”
- Nothing should be moved, touched or removed unless this will promote safety, prevent additional accidents, or save a life.
- The scene should not be cleared, cars moved, or evidence removed until all elements of the accident scene have been clearly marked with a permanent marking solution. Police of Traffic members making scratch-marks with a rock is not considered adequate.
- Where there is a loss of life or a major accident scene, a senior police member or a member of the SAPS Legal Criminal Records Center (LCRC) or the Forensic Unit should be in charge of the accident scene - not a constable.
- The detective for the area or for the shift might be present. In this instance, he may regulate activities at the scene.
- At any very serious or fatal accident scene, all elements of evidence, including vehicle positions, road-surface evidence, vehicle relationships, road conditions, victim location, vehicle damage and more should be photographed by the police, or an appointed or approved investigator.
- The police or traffic member in charge should ensure that all information about all parties, including witnesses, are fully recorded, on the AR form, at the scene, before leaving or declaring the scene complete.
- Police or Traffic officers present should measure all elements of the scene accurately. Walking distances, using the heal-toe method or guessing distances will not yield an accurate rendition of the scene.
- Where there is a suspicion of drunken driving, the police should observe the party facing the accusation, and establish whether they consider the person to be suspect of driving under the influence of an intoxicating substance.
- Where there is reasonable suspicion (breath, slurred speech, imbalance, etc) of a driver being under the influence, the police should arrest that person, and have his blood drawn by a district surgeon within two hours of the alleged offence.
- Do not accept police members telling you any of the following, as a reason for not being able to charge or arrest a drunken driver:
- We (the police) did not see him/her driving.
- He/she was not found behind the steering wheel of the car, while the car was idling.
- We cannot charge him/her because there is no complainant.
- your testimony will not stand up in court, because you are involved in the accident.
- A witness has the right to refuse to testify and can therefore not be used as one.
- If we (the police) charge him/her with drunken driving his/her insurance will not pay for your damage.
- He/she did not hurt anyone or cause any property damage.
- I/we (the police) can use our discretion as to whether we should charge him/her or not.
Any of these reasons would be utter and total nonsense, since (with specific reference to each):
- A witness can testify to having seen a person driving a car - especially if he/she was involved in the accident.
- The police will never be able to charge anyone if they had to see them all making accidents.
- In a criminal matter, the state is the complainant, and the policeman must enforce the law.
- Any person that has seen or observed any criminal act becomes a witness - including you.
- When you have witnessed a crime, you are a witness. You can be subpoenaed, and even arrested and brought to testify, you do not have a choice.
- The law makes no reference to insurance benefits. If you agree to this, both you and the police officer are guilty of fraud against the insurance company - a criminal offence.
- The law is clear: It is illegal to operate a vehicle while in a state of intoxication in excess of the legal limit. No reference is made to who was hurt or what was damaged.
- Police can only use their discretion in order to establish whether a crime was committed. Once they have established this to have happened, failing to enforce the law is considered a dereliction of duty, defeating the ends of justice and possibly being an accessory to the crime. All these are criminal offences themselves.
But, what are you to do if you had an accident and none of the above steps was taken, or important ones overlooked, skipped or simply ignored?
If you realize that police or traffic officials at an accident scene is not performing their designated tasks, or specifically trying to “get away from the scene as quickly as possible,” you should:
- Take the name, rank, station and contact number of the officer in charge.
- Ask the officer why a certain task or function is not being performed.
- Inform the officer that the matter will be referred to his superiors for further investigation.
- Report the matter to the station or unit commander, the provincial commissioner or director, and to the Public Protector.
- Demand feedback from them all.
Lastly, even if you are right, and the law enforcement officers are completely wrong, do not fight with them. Wrong or right, they have more power than you do at the scene.
If you have been an accident victim, and the scene was not properly handled by police or traffic, please feel free to contact a Forensic Accident Reconstructionist, such as Stan Bezuidenhout. It is their job to RE-construct accidents from the available evidence.