'Crash' course in accident investigation

A traffic accident happens in seconds, moments before paramedics and police arrive at the scene. But those are the critical seconds rarely caught on camera and accident investigators hardly ever get to see.

"Law enforcement is usually at a disadvantage, that they only see the aftermath of an accident and then they have to kind of build it back up and predict what was going on before it happened,â?? said Dr. Massoud Tavakoli, professor of mechanical engineering at Kettering University.

Dr. Tavakoli helped stage a live crash on Thursday, to give trained investigators tools they usually don't get in the field such as markers, measurements and equations.

The accident scene was staged at a traffic light on Bluff Street near Chevrolet Avenue, with two cars parked in front of it. Then, at 50 miles an hour, a Dodge van rammed into the cars, crushing the first one on impact.

â??This is kind of mimicking something that might happen at a traffic light when a couple cars are stopped for a traffic light,â?? Dr. Tavakoli said.

â??We actually get a chance to see how the vehicles actually interact with this one,â?? said Grand Rapids police Sergeant Steve LaBrecque, who was attending the fall conference of the Michigan Association of Traffic Accident Investigators (MATAI) at Kettering.

Following the crash, investigators put their knowledge to their test and worked to reconstruct the accident from end to beginning.

It was also a chance for freshman Larry Petersen to see if this is a profession he might like to pursue. If he ever feels his mechanical engineering major is rather dull, the three-car pileup he witnessed Thursday crashed that theory.

Petersen said, â??It's a good thing to see first-hand because you'll be able to go back and deduct what you've seen at an accident site with what you've see for real.â??

Because hindsight's not always 20/20, when your job is to tell the story backwards.