While it has become common for people to use the term accident, I feel that the use of this term is essentially inaccurate. Since I deal primarily in facts and evidence, as a Court Expert and Forensic Specialist, the term accident is hardly the correct and accurate description or reference to use – in spite of its popularity.
Let us agree that an accident is best described as something unintentional, something typically not leading to death or injury, and something that cannot be reasonably foreseen or anticipated.
When you reach for your sandwich and knock over your coffee, you’ve had an accident. You never intended it, you could not reasonably predict it would happen and you certainly didn’t cause much harm or injury – other than the stain on your white shirt, or worse: your wife’s.
When it comes to public or human safety, you are faced with an array of legal issues that place a duty on you to take reasonable care, to keep a proper look-out, to operate your vehicle (or equipment) with due regard (to the safety of yourself and/or others), and to increase your state of awareness, or to reduce your risk (drive slower for instance) as the conditions and operating environment becomes more complex.
In light of these references, nothing is ever truly an accident anymore. Not looking is something that can lead to a prosecution against you. There is also the “look but failed to see” syndrome that has been proven to exist through laboratory testing: humans are capable of casting their eyes on a specific stimulus (it was a motorcycle in the test), to actually connect with that stimulus for a measurable period, and to still not be aware (identify and process) the stimulus (or threat) or the danger associated thereto. When it comes to road traffic collisions, you will quickly grasp that the model of analysis becomes much more complex and the use of the word “accident” far less applicable, in the true sense.
The second issue we need to be aware of is the fallibility of the process of conventional thinking. The days of the “engineers know best” are far gone as we use better research methods and as we learn more of the complexities of the human mind as an integral component in the analysis of cause. Conventional thinking would suggest that better control would certainly result in reduced risk, right? Well – maybe not so much.
Take the work done by Hans Mondermann in a small village in the Netherlands called Makkinga in Friesland. A traffic safety engineer by trade, Mondermann decided that the only way to increase road safety was by considering the interaction between the ‘traffic world’ and the ‘social world’ and the prevailing ownership friction caused by forcing the two together. He immediately realized that there was a war of sorts, relating to ownership of the space. According to his research, pedestrians believed that the road belonged to them while they were using it and drivers believed they owned the road too. The final effect was a negative attitude between the two groups, using and accessing the same space.
He argued that there are places where the car would be a social guest rather than the exclusive owner of space. As a result, he had all the signs removed from the village, had one sign installed outside of town that limited the speed in the village to 30Km/h, and added ‘verkeersbordvrij’ to the sign. This means ‘free of traffic signs’. The result was phenomenal and almost instantaneous. As vehicles continued to use the village in the absence of statutory external control, drivers started applying a natural risk homeostasis algorithm (they felt it was unsafe to move too quickly) as pedestrian and vehicle traffic now interacted freely and more safely.
The road safety statistics improved immediately, collisions are all but unheard of and the model was so effective that a project implemented by the European Union is currently seeing seven cities and regions clear-cutting their forest of traffic signs. Ejby, in Denmark, joined in the experiment, as did Ipswich in England and the Belgian town of Ostende.
There are many additional examples of how conventional thinking has been counter-productive, but the point has been made. For now, it is important to note that the mere historical existence of one system of belief is hardly indicative of its applicability or exclusive compatibility to a particular aspect of road safety or risk analysis.
Enter the issue of the private crash investigation. There are arrays of legal, moral, and ethical considerations where individuals decide or are necessitated to gather evidence, take photographs or investigate their own road traffic collisions. Think of it as a work in progress. In most jurisdictions in Africa, it is the mandate and job of the police services to investigate crimes. At the same time a shortage of manpower, resources, and skills, as well as the political attitude towards road traffic collisions (they are “only accidents”), often means that these go uninvestigated, or poorly investigated, or are merely recorded by those very officers appointed to attend the scenes.
In many cases, you won’t be allowed to take photographs or to “investigate your own collision” or at the very least discouraged to do so, as issues relating to control and mandate, legal implications, possible exposure of poor skill, and lack of resources or corrupt practices might be exposed. Whatever the reason, you are essentially trapped in a world where your reliance and trust in the system could result in your disadvantage.
Consider the issue of security. It is the job and mandate also of police to ensure public order and safety, yet you are forced to invest heavily in security barriers (bars and fences), in security services, and on private companies responding to your security needs. Not unlike the trend in this industry, the use of private contractors to take over part of the work of the police services and forces in Africa have become commonplace, as it has abroad, in relation to road traffic collisions.
But before you rush off and appoint a Private Collision Homicide Reconstructionist, we need to clarify your role in the process. What can you do to ensure that the expert is effective at his job?
In this industry, like in any relating to the collection of evidence, the final result is only as good as the accuracy and reliability of the information it rests on.
Stan Bezuidenhout is a Military Veteran, a former Specialist Police Serervist, an Internationally Experienced Crash Specialist and Court Expert, a widely published author, and an inimitable Trainer with more than 20 years’ experience in the Road and Transport Safety and Crash Investigation environment. Stan has made many appearances on a variety of Television Reality and News Programs, on Live Radio Shows, and at many conferences and events. After spending most of two years in the USA, Stan has returned to South Africa permanently, to share his vast and expansive knowledge and to help grow the Expert Witness Industry in Africa.
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