Road Death Investigations in fiction

‘We do not expect people to be moved by what is not unusual. That element of tragedy which lies in the very fact of frequency, has not wrought itself into the coarse emotion of mankind’ (George Eliot.)

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Road closure for Major Incident. M1 North, Watford Gap, 2005 © Stephen Colllier

As a former road death investigator, it occurred to me that as a writer it might be appropriate to write about the fictional use of collision investigators.

In my debut novel ‘Blind Murder,’ I briefly use some of the techniques used in collision investigation, then realised that the use of collision investigators in fiction are not that well known.

‘Crime scene investigators’(CSI’s), or Scenes of Crime Officers (SOCO’s), are aplenty across the crime writing genre  but in general there are few collision investigators, if any.

The concept of specially trained police officers from Traffic Departments started in the mid to late 1980’s. Up until that time a single (police) traffic officer would be the only person engaged in the investigation of fatal accidents. Unfortunately the overriding attitude towards them was just that – it’s an accident, they happen. And at a time when the UK killed just under 4,000 people on our roads, per annum. We still kill about 1300 people today – which is still far too many.

In the beginning, the officer in the case was to be assisted by a trained collision investigator in scrutinising the collision, (training I undertook in 1988,) but at least it was better than the task falling to a single officer.

Accident Unit 1987However, with the advent of accident, now collision, investigation units, the examination of serious life changing injury and road death took on a more serious investigative role.When you consider the number of people who die on our roads compared to the handful of murders we have, I have always begged the question as to whether we had got our priorities the wrong way around. I see now the importance of the two in depth investigations, having been involved in both types of investigation. Both have similar but differing concerns, both of which can become protracted and complicated, but ultimately lead to the same result.

For over a decade police forces ran their own accident investigation units, with no coordinated investigative structure. Some forces were good at it, most just got by.

From a practical point of view, investigating the scene of a road death can be difficult and dangerous. Roads were sometimes not closed completely and the Investigator had to compete with live traffic, with the consequential loss of a lot of forensic evidence. It was more important in those initial years to get the road open, so as not to inconvenience road users, than spend time collecting the minutia of vehicle parts which may have been scattered over a wide distance. I wonder how many convictions we could have secured if we had collected everything we could back then?

But it was not all bad. Work was being done in the background which put fatal collisions in the same stable as murder or manslaughter. The introduction of the Road Death Investigation Manual, provided a much needed structure to these investigations and in many respects mirrored the CID’s Murder Investigation Manual. 

The introduction of this investigatory book resulted in roads being closed for longer, more forensic evidence collected and examined and an increase in the number of officers allocated to the investigation. 

In addition the adoption of forensic collision investigators – road policing’s own CSI’s – to work closely with force SOCO’s, increased the expertise of these departments exponentially. Some of the more complicated road deaths now even have a detective inspector and detective constables to assist. Something that no one would have ever dreamed of twenty years ago.

Today, each road death is usually allocated its own Senior Traffic Investigating Officer,(STIO) which is either a road policing sergeant or inspector, a forensic collision investigator,(FCI) a traffic family liaison officer,(TFLO) and other back office investigators and staff.

The result is that the investigation of road death is highly professional, highly scientific and victim centred, to the point of acceptance by the detectives, and academics. It also gives the officer the ability to give expert evidence in a British court.

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Road collision circa 1989 © Stephen Collier

… Next time, in this occasional series we’ll examine what the FCI would look for while at the scene and further afield.

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