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Why Does It Take So Long To Open A Road After An Accident?

crash reconstruction
Ohio State Highway Patrol
The Ohio State Highway Patrol has 14 reconstructionists located across the state. Locally, the Cincinnati Police Department has eight officers who handle about 120 investigations a year.

Jay Hanselman is WVXU's city hall reporter. He—probably much like you—often wondered why it takes so long to re-open an interstate or major roadway following a serious traffic accident. So he decided to find out. Here is what he uncovered. 

I'll admit I'm often a little annoyed and puzzled when an interstate is shutdown for two, three or four hours after a serious crash. Now many times, it takes that long to clean-up the mess left behind from say, an overturned tractor trailer or tanker truck. Other times there's not a lot of debris to clear out of the way, but the highway remains closed. 

Sometimes that's because specially trained police officers are working to reconstruct what happened. Cincinnati Police Specialist Mike Flamm is a crash reconstructionist. He's been doing it for most of his 22-year career with the department, and his job starts with analyzing the evidence and events.

"To have a much more advanced understanding of the forces that are involved in the crashes; the speeds that are involved; why exactly did this sequence of events occur versus a collision that may have involved a non-fatality or even a non-injury," he explains. 

The Cincinnati Police Department has eight officers who actively reconstruct crashes. The city usually does this for any accident involving fatalities or serious life threatening injuries. Officers handle about 120 investigations a year. Flamm says they have one chance to collect evidence, and some of it is only available right after an accident happens.

"That's one of the reasons why it takes so long is I'm having to gather all this data, recall it, think about what I need and plan ahead for how I'm going to handle the investigation. In which, sometimes we make mistakes and we miss stuff, thus we got to go back to the scene and go try to collect the data we can or find another method for determining that same answer," Flamm says. 

The Ohio State Highway Patrol has 14 reconstructionists located across the state who do the work full-time and some other troopers can be called in to help. Lieutenant Christopher Kinn is the crash reconstruction commander for the patrol in Columbus. He says there's not a checklist for what troopers do at a crash scene.

"So the better we are at determining the causative factors of the crash, the more proactive we can be in trying to prevent future crashes from happening," he says.

Technology is changing the field. In the past, officers were taking measurements with a measuring wheel or tape measurer. Now, many departments are using the same laser and GPS equipment used by land surveyors. Officers also have access to better computers and software that even allow 3-D modeling of a crash scene. And most vehicles are now equipped with event data recorders, or EDRs, that provide additional information.

"We can explain how the crash happened. Sometimes the why gets very difficult because you don't know why that driver decided to do that," Kinn says. "But we do our best to try to paint that picture and be objective in our findings, without speculating. But showing through the evidence at the scene, the information that we've uncovered, whether it's through the event data recorders or through detailed analysis of that crash scene, what the factors were that caused that crash."

Kinn says the patrol does everything it can to re-open routes as soon as possible because the longer a road is shutdown the more likely there will be other crashes in the backed-up traffic.

"We're trying to balance it, of gathering the information we need with minimal impact to the motoring public," he says. "Because we do want to get that road opened because all that's going to do is cause more crashes to happen, the longer we keep a road closed. So we're very conscious about that."

Police Specialist Flamm says they work hard to get it right.

"We deal with truly innocent victims. This is more often an everyday citizen that was on their way to work, on their way home from work, that's now deceased," he says. "People demand answers and we have a responsibility to be able to provide them."

Once the data's collected, it can take several months for investigations to be completed, and in most cases, the reports are peer-reviewed before the findings are released.