New technology is making our cars safer than ever, but it’s also giving us new ways to have accidents. We meet the man who works to find out what happened
23 February 2019

“This job used to be about grubbing around on the road, looking at tiny specks of stuff,” says Gary Baldwin, a 30-year veteran of Thames Valley Police’s Forensic Collision Investigation Unit, “but that’s only a tiny part of it now.” When Gary started his accident investigation work in 1988, skid marks were his “bread and butter”, but ABS put paid to those. Today, CCTV and dashcam footage are his staple. 

“They have absolutely taken over,” he says. “At first, it was just CCTV in town centres and on motorway gantries, but dashcams have become more and more common. You don’t always get the full picture but they have definitely taken on a big role.” 

Gary is now retired as an officer but remains a civilian manager of a team of nine, and you really don’t want to be involved in the kind of accidents they look into. “It’s any fatal that’s connected with a motor vehicle,” he says. “From a car falling off a jack while you’re underneath it to a multiple shunt on the motorway.” 

In the late 1980s, there were around 5000 UK road deaths a year. Today, it’s less than 2000, but a level of tragedy is “almost inevitable”, says Gary. “The problem is those that are not surrounded by a car: pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists – the ‘vulnerable road users’. Cyclists still don’t get the message about riding up the inside of big vehicles at junctions. People just don’t understand how hard it is to see out of a lorry.” 

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A number of causative factors have changed. Drug driving is the new drink driving, vehicle defects are far less of an issue and ‘unintended acceleration’ crashes by elderly drivers are on the rise. (“Old people are becoming big customers of ours,” says Gary.) And then there’s the mobile phone effect, which Gary describes as “massive”. 

The key word here is ‘distraction’. “When mobiles first came in, we were all concerned with drivers making calls,” he says. “But that’s nothing now compared with the problem of people typing messages and updating Facebook.” When Gary and his team arrive at the scene of a crash, phones are seized as a matter of course. “Whether we always know for certain if the phone was being used is a different matter,” he says. “Not every app stores everything you do, but texting and WhatsApp are time-stamped. The worst one I had was 20 messages before she ran into the back of a broken-down car – 20 texts about the plot of the previous night’s Emmerdale. It’s madness.” 

Gary is surprisingly pragmatic about the problem, so rather than prescribe a draconian legislative approach – “there are no traffic cops out there to enforce it anyway,” he says – he thinks a better interface with the car might be the best compromise. Auto-read and dictatable text message tech already exists, so extending that to other platforms could mitigate the issue – although that might be akin to suggesting the legalisation of crack and heroin. “Phones are a fact of life now, so we’ve got to make them less dangerous,” he concedes. “Make it less important that you have to hold the thing and, most importantly, make sure you’re looking up and ahead.” 

Another piece of relatively recent tech has the potential to provide a goldmine of information, but, infuriatingly, Gary can’t always get his hands on it. Your car’s airbag ECU is, by its very nature, a reasonably sophisticated crash detection system which measures things such as velocity and angular accelerations – and, crucially, it records them. US law gives people in Gary’s position access to that data, but here there’s no such compulsion. 

“The airbag module is a really good way of finding out what happened,” says Gary. “It gives about five seconds of data before the crash and a couple of seconds after.” 

Some car makers – Gary cites Toyota and Volvo, but there are more – provide the access codes, yet others refuse. “Some lie and tell us it’s not there,” he says. “But it is.” Gary shows us the data from a double-fatal collision involving a car and a motorcycle. It reveals the precise speed of the car in the lead-up to the crash, its deceleration, steering inputs and the impact with the bike, all in tenth-of-a-second increments. It’s exactly what Gary needs, but in many cases, it’s out of reach. A few years ago, there was talk that the EU was going to make it compulsory to provide the data, “but if it’s happening, I’ve not heard about it”, he says. “The car manufacturers are powerful. I presume they’re lobbying against it but I don’t know why.” 

For all the unpleasantness Gary faces in his job, he stresses that our roads are safer than ever. New technology can take much of the credit, but attitudes have changed, too. “Now everyone wants their five-star NCAP rating,” he says. “Safety has become a selling point.” And it’s true: it has. So let’s all leave our phones alone while we’re driving, eh? Just to be on the safe side.

Location, location, location

While we’re talking, a call comes in about a possibly fatal crash on the M1 and Gary asks if we want to “go and have a look”. I wonder about the sensitivity of him turning up with a journalist and photographer in tow, but the incident turns out to be in Northamptonshire, off Gary’s patch. 

As we listen to the radio chatter about the crash, another new tech-related issue is highlighted: the traffic cops can’t locate the accident. Gone are the days when people would stop and call in details from a motorway’s emergency phone. Now we use our mobiles, and sat-navs mean many people have no idea where they are at any given moment. “Half of them don’t know whether they’re going north or south, which junctions they’re between or even which motorway they’re on,” Gary says. 

We’re supposed to use the ‘driver location signs’ (google ’em) on such occasions, “but no one knows about those,” says Gary. “You can spend a lot of time just driving up and down looking for a crash.”

Read more

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Behind the scenes with Surrey’s traffic cops: how to catch a caller​

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Comments
14

23 February 2019

 Good article, highlighted the main problem in today society...connectivity, some of us seem to think using our mobile while driving isn’t a problem, but, it only takes a second not paying attention to end your life or someone else’s, how do People not get that?, making it hands free with voice dictation of texting sounds great because your looking where your going, it’s like talking to your passenger it doesn’t require a lot of concentration .

 

 

 

Peter Cavellini.

289

23 February 2019

I am getting really tired of the inactivity by our law makers over mobile usage which I see as a massive problem. I spend quite a lot of time on the road and see mobiles being used all the time...particularly women and Lorry drivers.

Personally, if a client calls me when I am on the road, I ignore it and call back when I have reached my destination (or if on a main road) found a place to stop and call back.

No call is worth the risk

I guess women because they seem to be welded to their mobiles....none of it essential stuff, and lorry drivers proabably through boredom. It was bad enough when they spent so much time with a mike in their hands using CB radios, but texting takes a whole lot more concentration without eyes on the road!

Waze doesnt allow any interaction/programming when the car is on the move....surely it isnt beyond the intelligence of technical types to do the same with the actual mobile itself. Just design the handset to refuse to function (other than incoming calls via hands free),  above 5 mph, so that you can use it whilst walking.

Our law makers could sort this in an afternoon, passing a law to cover this and forcing all mobile manufacturers to comply....clearly the service providers dont want this as they want maximum traffic, but the inappropriate use carnage cant be allowed to go on ONE DAY LONGER. Action, not procrastination is needed here, and big business can go to hell on this one. They dont even pay their taxes properly in this country, so they dont have a say in my view, especially when it is destroying families every day.

24 February 2019

Good point re speed sensitive apps. But what about passengers phones and tablets?

289

24 February 2019

I thought about that Blue....but it is not solvable. So tough luck. People will have to learn to have a conversation again, or for children - play downloaded games.

23 February 2019

While the guy you've interviewed does an interesting job there seems to be too much focus, time and money spent on vehicle related deaths ( and a massive inconvience to whose still living) considering how many people there are and how may journeys it may be that the level of deaths on the road is about as low as you it can go. On a TV programme many years ago possibly by the Open University an expert amusingly talked about risks in society ..basically the biggest reduction of accidental death/ severe injuries would be not getting in and out of baths,not putting trousers on and not using stairs !

 

23 February 2019

I think I saw that.  Wasn't gardening really high up the list?  A little known fact is that many men die shovelling snow.  It's not just the physical effort, but the fact that in the cold, the blood is thicker as well.  Combine the two and you get a heart attack.  Moral of the story - get the wife to clear the pavement.  Tell her it could kill you.

23 February 2019

 In my view and others I guess, using a mobile in a 1000kg Car turns a Car into a possible killing machine used by us, if as suggested you could only listen to incoming and if you desired to reply you’d be forced to stop safely somewhere and reply, for all the time your stopped you’ll make up anyway, ok, your phone goes off umpteen times a journey, you don’t have to answer them all, plus you could leave an answering message which I’m sure most would understand which would be...I’m driving just now, I will call you back when it is safe to do so, now, if they don’t understand that, or care for your safety, what does that say about them..?

Peter Cavellini.

23 February 2019

I refer you all to the book written after a PhD thesis called The Criminal on the Road.  in the late 1060s and nothing has changed other yah being a criminal is probably  genetic and thus inherited. It is difficult to chose your grandparents.

Lanman

23 February 2019

Meet the people...who keep the roads closed for longer than they actually need to.  I've been all over the world, some police close the roads off, some don't.  But I've NEVER known a country that keeps the road closed for so long after an accident.  Either the traffic police are incompetent or they just like the power thing.  The thing is, when I complained once, the policeman said they need to comb the scene in case there's a crime.  I pointed out that it was a suicide (bloke was seen jumping off the bridge) and that even if it were a crime, the scene would be contaminated by countless cars that had hit the poor bloke and run over him, so any decent lawyer would get anything thrown out of court anyway!

24 February 2019
Bazzer wrote:

Meet the people...who keep the roads closed for longer than they actually need to.  I've been all over the world, some police close the roads off, some don't.  But I've NEVER known a country that keeps the road closed for so long after an accident.

You can blame our warped criminal justice system and negative attitudes towards the Police for that. If there is even the remotest possibility that a criminal prosecution will ensue, the Police know that they have only one chance to examine the scene to the nth degree. Not only do they have to investigate what has happened, they also have to consider and fully investigate any other possible scenarios that could have caused the situation, no matter how far fetched they might seem. If they don't, and if they leave even the smallest T uncrossed they run the risk of the CPS dropping the case right at the start, or a smart defence lawyer bringing in doubt about the Police officers competence when it gets to court. Call it back covering if you like but thats the framework the Police have to work in. If it was one of your loved ones who was the victim in one of these cases I'm sure you'd want the officers to do whatever they can to try and prosecute successfully, even if it causes you some slight inconvenience at the time.

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