Police reports in vehicle crashes — what’s involved

In a mystery I read not long ago, a sheriff got a written report from the sheriff in a neighboring county just a few hours after a complicated 3-vehicle crash, involving a car, a pickup, and a semi, on a narrow mountain highway that left two persons in critical condition, one not expected to live. And, not surprisingly, very similar to another crash two months earlier.

Won’t happen that way. In real life, it will take weeks to complete all the investigation necessary for a written report. Autopsy results can take several days, especially if the death occurs on a weekend or in a remote location. (Check your story state’s system for investigating suspicious deaths, and who performs autopsies in such cases—if a crime is suspected, as in many vehicle-related deaths, a state medical examiner may conduct the autopsy, rather than the local pathologist who might perform an autopsy in a more routine matter.)

Toxicology results may also take weeks. It’s not uncommon for law enforcement to issue a preliminary report without the toxicology results.

Your officers may spend hours at a collision scene. In a tragic and complicated case my law firm handled last year, the lead investigator—a state highway patrol officer—reached the scene about thirty minutes after the crash, on an Interstate highway in Montana near the Canadian border. He spent nearly six hours on site, along with two other patrol officers and nearly a dozen officers from other agencies, interviewing witnesses, taking photos and measurements, and ensuring the safety of other travelers. The crash resulted in one fatality and several injuries. One involved vehicle was a semi pulling a trailer; the tractor had to be towed to the dealership more than a hundred miles away so the Electronic Control Module or ECM, similar to the black box in an airplane, could be removed and data obtained. The data—second-by-second details of speeds, gear shifts, and braking—had to be reviewed within the department and by outside experts.

In most states, as in mine, an official reconstruction is mandatory in a fatality collision, and will be conducted in many other serious crashes as well. All state agencies responsible for investigating traffic accidents, whether called state police, highway patrol, or some other name, and most mid-sized and larger police and sheriff’s departments will have officers trained as reconstructionists. They measure skid marks, yaw marks, and other gashes and gouges found on the road, the distances between vehicles, and more; take extensive photographs; and compute Total Station Data, using sophisticated CAD-like software. Ultimately, they will compute speeds, angle of impact, turning angles, and more, and reach an opinion on what happened.

When a commercial vehicle is involved, as in my firm’s case and the one in the book I mentioned, vehicle inspections may be required to determine whether the vehicle was properly maintained. (Mandatory in Montana, and no doubt elsewhere.) Those, too, will take some time.

But the kicker? In the book I read, a written report wasn’t necessary—and it might not be necessary in yours, either. Sheriff One could simply have said “I got a call from Sheriff Two, and it’s all still preliminary, but he thinks …”

Take that into account in your stories.