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Analyzing accidents

Sometimes, it pays to conduct an expert analysis of the crash scene


BOUCHERVILLE, Que. — A tractor-trailer rounding a bend in Quebec collides with the front right corner of a pickup truck, loses control and flips over in the ditch. Police do a cursory examination of the scene and the insurance company concludes that the truck driver is at fault.

The trucking company fleet manager visits the scene the same day as the accident. He takes a lot of pictures; ie., the pickup truck and tractor-trailer, skid marks on the road and the surrounding area. A couple of weeks later the fleet manager, unable to reconcile what he saw with the conclusion that his driver was at fault, calls Pierre Bellemare, a 25-year veteran (retired) of the Sûrête Québec, collision reconstructionist and president of L’Equipe Collision Expert, in Boucherville, Que.

It’s time for an expert analysis of the accident scene.

The fleet manager explains to Bellemare that his driver has been declared responsible, and the company is therefore on the hook for the insurance deductible. Bellemare recounts what the fleet manager told him: “Pierre,” he says, ‘I’m pretty sure I’m not responsible.’ The fleet manger sent me pictures and I could tell immediately that he was not responsible.”

Bellemare and the fleet manager go back to the scene of the accident, photos in hand. “We went to the scene but the skid marks were gone. But with the fleet manager’s photos, we could reconstruct all the marks. We painted all the marks on the scene, locating them with reference to the cracks in the pavement. From this I could place the vehicles at the point of impact. I showed that the pickup truck was in the wrong lane at the point of impact,” Bellemare says.

In an ideal world every accident would be investigated by a collision reconstructionist. But because of Quebec’s no-fault insurance, only when criminal behaviour is suspected do collision reconstructionists analyze highway accidents.

Because of Quebec law, there is little point. “The law forbids civil proceedings. There is no-fault for the civil action,” Bellemare explains. There is, however, a catch. “There is no no-fault for the material damage. If you are not responsible, the insurance pays your deductible (for the accident). If you are responsible, the insurance does not pay the deductible. You assume the deductible,” Bellemare says.

According to Bellemare there are only around 20 collision reconstruction specialists in Quebec, compared to some 130 in Ontario.

“In Quebec, if there are no civil proceedings, there is no reconstruction. In Ontario, etc., the police are obliged to investigate,” Bellemare says.

The result is that most accidents only get the once-over by police who have only superficial training in assessing accidents, limited to how to fill out “R1” reports for fender-benders. Even an accident in which a vehicle leaves the road and the driver is killed, for instance, would not warrant bringing in an collision reconstructionist. The occasional result then, is that insurance companies come to the wrong conclusion about who is at fault and refuse to pay the deductible for the party judged to be the cause of an accident.

There is another concern for trucking companies. Under Quebec’s Law 430, trucking companies must appear before the Transport Commission after an accident, Bellemare says. “Under 430, if you have an accident, you lose points. Now you have to prove that you should get those points back. It is automatic that you will pass in front of the Transport Commission to prove that you did not cause the accident.”

Courses are available that teach the rudiments of collision reconstruction; ie., the Quebec Trucking Association plans to host one later this year. “Most of the big fleets have taken (such a) course. The training is to explain to the fleet manager what to do for all of the steps in an investigation, and what to collect, documents, etc.,” Bellemare says.

Bellemare has some suggestions that can help companies mount a bit of a defense if they find themselves on the wrong side of the guilt ledger. “The first call is when the driver calls the fleet manager to say he has had an accident. Advise the driver to take photos of the scene as soon as possible.

The second thing to do is send someone to the scene. Try and gain access. If it is a criminal investigation, access will probably be forbidden. Police will not give you their investigation results. If it is not criminal you will probably have access. Take photos. Take measurements. Temperature, the conditions like ice and later, interview the driver and try and compare his testimony with the scene.

To the fleet manager: Get a good understanding in your head about the accident, then interview the driver and compare his story with the scene evidence.

This is why it is imperative to go to the scene, take pictures and interpret. It is certain that a trucking company will have an accident. They need to
have documentation. They need to know how to properly document an
accident.”


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