Accident training helps Oregon police

Staged car crashes in a Hood River parking lot Thursday were no mere pre-Halloween hijinks.

Forty police officers from around the state gathered at Best Western Hood River Inn this week for an accident investigation course that culminated in Thursday’s simulated accidents.

The junk cars, and fake skid marks, in the east parking lot of Hood River’s largest hotel were there as accident.

“We try to recreate (crashes) as close as possible,” said Steve Vitolo, an ODOT safety official. The course is designed to increase the crash investigation skills or current officers that respond to collisions in the scope of their regular duties.

Vitolo said the course gives officers practical insight into analyzing what they see at a crash scene. He gave this example:

There’s a guy in a crashed car, and another guy walking around, saying he was driving. The angle of seat belt burns across the “driver’s” right shoulder reveal he was on the right side of the car, and not the left, or driver’s, side.

The training will help the officer to identify how to put proper people in proper places in a vehicle, and to better understand the way things move before and after they are in an accident.

“An officer can go to a scene and get down to the nuts and bolts of what happened,” Vitolo said. He added that the three-day course was intensive and, though not an expert training, provided “an extra tool, expanding on what is taught at the academy.”

The course was designed by officers from the cities of Beaverton, Salem, and Gresham, and Clackamas, Deschutes, Lane and Washington counties. Many of the designers taught the class this week, the second session out of approximately eight that will be taught through December 2004, with the goal of training a total of 220 officers around the state.

Cars donated by Consolidated Towing of Bend were “crashed” in different configurations, with skid marks and other evidence showing. The officers grouped into teams at alternating stations, where they measured and located evidence, then tried to put back together what had happened — a process also known as “reconstruction.” Following the field investigation the officers were tested on their ability to create a detailed diagram of the crash.

The class was a joint effort by Oregon State Police and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), and it gave police officers from around Oregon additional skills beyond what they studied at the academy in investigating, assessing and documenting crash scenes. The three-day course was offered by the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) and the ODOT Transportation Division.

“One of the goals is to increase our ability to get more accurate crash data and more of it,” said Vitolo, who is law enforcement and judicial program manager for ODOT safety division.

Vitolo said that just 35 percent of crashes out of the estimated 45,000 crashes that occur annually in Oregon are reported to law enforcement. Given the “significant law enforcement manpower reduction all of the state,” Vitolo said, most non-injury accidents that do not involve immediate threat to life are not directly investigated by law enforcement.

Data drawn from such accidents is “sometimes skewed,” he said. By training officers to do a better job of investigating those accidents they do cover, the overall pool of crash data will be improved, according to Vitolo. This will result in improved public safety, he said.

“How it helps the ODOT is we at the safety division manage National Transportation Safety Administration dollars for traffic law enforcement, in addition to DUIIs and seatbelt violations, and it is becoming quite normal to not have law enforcement available to go to those crashes,” Vitolo said. “If we’re not getting the data, we don’t know what happened. Law enforcement reports are obviously more accurate and less biased,” he said.

NTSA funds can be used to make engineering and design safety improvements if the crash investigation data adequately supports a need identified by law enforcment or ODOT, according to Vitolo.

“If a problem area exists such as signs or roads, something not working properly, there is always the possibility of redesign or doing something to improve the safety of that location,” he said.

The crash investigation course expands the knowledge base and will allow agencies to share resources, according to Vitolo. He said OSP and ODOT developed the class because throughout the state, cities and other agencies have varying resources for responding to crashes and needs vary from area to area. Some parts of the state don’t have as many experienced accident reconstructionists, but will be able to call on a trained officer from a neighboring jurisdiction to help reconstruct an accident.

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