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A Computer Program for Accident Reconstruction
by Steve Belyus

"Trial presentations have to contain computer generated information for a jury to take them seriously,” commented a county prosecutor after I presented my case for an aggravated vehicular homicide to him.

The case involved an elderly gentleman who had been struck down by a pickup truck in his front yard while he mowed his lawn. A young man speeding down the street had run up behind a slower vehicle and swerved to avoid striking it in the rear, and subsequently lost control. The truck careened across the yard and struck a utility pole. The body of the victim was launched 30 feet before it touched down. The crash investigation team determined the subject’s pre-crash speed to be nearly twice the posted limit. The prosecutor remarked that a jury would be inflamed by this set of circumstances, because “One doesn’t normally consider the hazard of being run down by a motor vehicle while mowing their lawn.” But he wanted a computer generated display to present to the jury, and it was my job to get him one.

I was aware of and impressed by the computer generated displays and presentations at trials shown on television, but as a Traffic Crash Reconstructionist working for a law enforcement agency, I didn’t have a budget for such extras. While I had recently purchased a crime/traffic scene CAD program named 3D EyeWitness, by DesignWare Inc., I had never used the program and was apprehensive that it might be too complex to learn without investing a great deal of time and effort. Even though I was a computer novice, I soon learned that my fears were unfounded.

The program comes with an instruction manual which guides the user step-by-step from installation through its most complex functions. A tutorial is provided to “get your feet wet” before jumping into a project. You can create a scene, modify it, and apply the various functions that are supplied by the program -- and there are many.

There is a large library of drawing elements to choose from, including a variety of cars, trucks, people, and most items to be found at a traffic scene. All are fully sizable.

For my first scene, I chose the permanent fixtures and placed them in their proper locations. Then I selected the non-permanent fixtures (vehicles and pedestrian) and placed them at their “at rest” location in the drawing. I was quickly finished! A task which would normally take hours of pencil dots and compass arcs was completed in less than half an hour the first time I had ever used the program.

The scene may be viewed from a variety of altitudes in 2-D ranging from an aerial view to one very close up. Work can be performed on the scene from any of these allowing for very meticulous placement during a close-up view. The program provides a variety of options for printing your work.

Once the scene is created in two dimensions, you can move to the next function. With a click of the mouse the 2-D rendering is transformed to a 3-D external view (it takes less time than Tyson vs. Seldon). Then you can move around the perimeter of the drawing, viewing is from different angles and altitudes. There are three types of displays presented in the 3-D mode. The “wireframe” displays each element as though it were a 3-D model made of wire. This is the working display.

Once the angle of view which you prefer is found you may go to “hidden line” display. This illustrates the scene from your chosen angle as a 3-D sketch with all elements in proper spatial proportion to each other. You can no longer see through yourmodels and an object located behind another object from the chosen perspective is blocked from view.

The third display is a “painted” view. The hidden line display is painted by the computer with default colors. You can change and blend colors on each element. I found that a 3-D rendering of the 2-D sketch goes a long way toward giving a jury a better feel for a sequence of events. Everything is still to scale, only the angle of viewing the scene has changed.

A power feature of the program is a 3-D internal view. This function allows you to view the scene in the same style as 3-D external with the exception that your perspective is now from within the scene itself instead of from the perimeter. By controlling a camera icon you determine the exact location, direction, even the height and angle of the view from which you will look. This function essentially places you inside the drawing to look around.

I made extensive use of this during a work-up on another crash in which a car struck a pedestrian who crossed the street in its path. The pedestrian’s claim that the car had to have been speeding because it appeared so suddenly was disproved by skidmark length and other physical data.

After first drawing the scene with the car and pedestrian at their “time of impact” locations I backed them up along their routes of approach as ½ second intervals adjusting for the varying speed of the car through the scene. At each of these locations I checked the perspective of both the driver of the car and the pedestrian as though there were looking for each other. The features of the program allowed me to adjust for the eye level of the driver seated in the car as well as the pedestrian (knowing his height) both as he walked across the street and before he stepped into the street from the elevated sidewalk.

This series of scenes showed that the views the driver and pedestrian might have had of each other was obscured by a vehicle from which the pedestrian had just exited. As that vehicle pulled into the street and moving toward the oncoming car, it blocked their view of each other.

Other positive attributes of the program are:
• Accurate measurements can be made on the screen from point to point.
• You can draw and include in a scene an element that isn’t provided in the library.
• Scenes can be adjusted for the proper location and angle of the sun.

The license permits the “use the software on any compatible computer, provided you use the software on only one computer at a time.” This makes it convenient to take a project to court and load it into their computer to display and manipulate during a hearing.

While the program was developed to deal with both traffic and crime scenes, the library for crime scenes is more elaborate, enabling the construction of a multiple story house complete with furniture, fixtures, personal effects and even yard elements. After building a house and yard you can view it from any angle or location, inside and out. Weapons, people, contraband, bullet holes, etc. may be positioned appropriately. You can even look through the windows to see objects on the other side. MovieMaker allows you to move through these scenes as well.

The few negative experiences I have encountered include: when you print a “painted line” version of a diagram as viewed from an angle, the printout appears skewed. Also, the program will only display items from the library in 3-D. Elements created with the “draw” function do not appear.

A very positive attribute of this program is the price.

This program gave me a tool that I never anticipated for doing work that I have never considered. I have used it heavily and I am still coming up with new ideas for applications. L&O

Sgt. Steve Belyus serves with the Ohio State Highway Patrol in the division’s Crash Reconstruction and Analysis (CRA) section.

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Latest revision: 12/12/2012.