I recently read a post on the website of another local law firm that announced drones were being used more frequently in accident reconstruction. The post says drones are now being used by emergency personnel across the country. It then cites a Massachusetts state trooper and a Minnesota-based accident reconstruction expert. Are drones actually being used for car accident reconstruction in Alabama? The other post is silent on this key issue. The post was clearly written by a marketing person with no local information. I would like to dig a little deeper. Let’s look into drones and their impact on accidents right here in Alabama!
The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Has Started A Drone Program.
A February 2020 story on channel WSFA notes that the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (our State Troopers) had recently started a new drone program for traffic and safety issues. At the time of the article, our state police had 16 drones plus a goal to expand the program. According to the article, State Troopers had begun using drones in September 2019.
What does this tell us? Alabama State Troopers do use drones. But, it’s a fairly recent development. As of 2020 (when the article was written) they only had a few drones. That number would not be sufficient to cover all possible accidents in Alabama. Keep in mind these drones are not just used for accident investigations. They can be used for many police purposes such as hostage situations, environmental dangers, and suspect pursuits, just to name a few. When you consider all the possible uses, 16 is really not a lot to cover the whole state.
A follow-up story in August 2020 notes Alabama Law Enforcement Agency officers are utilizing both drones and laser technology to gather crash and crime scene information. Officers were training in the operation of drones. I expect the drone program to grow as more equipment is purchased and more officers are trained in piloting the devices.
Local Law Enforcement Agencies Have Also Started Drone Programs
Drones are not limited to just state troopers. Some local agencies have also started programs. An article titled Transforming Accident Investigation With Drones discusses a drone program at the Hartselle Police Department. According to Hartselle Police Sergeant Kelly Roberts:
We think drones can help first responders act more effectively on the scene by capturing aerial information during natural disasters and accidents.
This article discusses how drones can dramatically shorten the time needed for serious accident investigations. They can also keep officers safe. As Sergeant Roberts continued to note:
This is a major benefit to public safety because anytime traffic is stopped the chances of another accident occurring go up.
We’ve all driven through serious accident scenes. They can be confusing. Some drivers divert their attention to the crashed vehicles putting everyone at risk for a second crash. Secondary accidents frequently result from distracted drivers. Other drivers may not even see a police officer, accident victim or tow truck driver standing at the scene due to all the commotion competing for their attention. If police investigators can shorten the time needed to gather essential information, it would be a huge benefit to the safety of officers and other drivers in the area.
A 2019 story on WAFF discusses the Huntsville Police Department’s new drone program. At that time, the Huntsville Police Department already had 7 aircraft and 10 certified pilots. A quick Google search shows several other Tennessee Valley police agencies also now have a drone for use.
Drones Could Provide Valuable Accident Reconstruction
Will drones be used for all accidents? Not likely anytime soon. Most car accidents are handled by a local officer on the scene who diagrams the accident and talks with those involved. Most accidents involve a fairly simple investigation. For most accidents, the near-term likely means the same.
But, drones are valuable for serious accidents, fatalities and accidents that clog major roadways. With only a limited number of drones and qualified pilots, law enforcement will need to concentrate these resources on the most serious accidents. In car and truck crashes involving fatalities, state troopers already prepare a much more detailed report with photographs, measurements and detailed vehicle information. Drones could help with much of the additional investigation that is part of accident fatality reports.
Could drones provide benefits for the most serious accidents? Could drone reconstruction help your accident and injury case? Absolutely. Think of the ability to see a presentation of the scene captured shortly after the crash! Consider how easy a jury could watch the video! We frequently handle serious crash injuries and deaths where investigators took pictures shortly after an accident. But, still shots never show the full scene like a video presentation. A video could clearly tell the story.
And, drone technology could also be used for precise measurements of the vehicles and scene. The diagrams we see on many standard accident reports are often imprecise. I’ve seen accident report diagrams that look nothing like the scene itself. The lack of exact measurements creates huge disputes in many cases.
I remember a terrible eighteen wheeler crash we handled a few years ago on Interstate 20. During our investigation, we discovered the investigating officer wrote a report putting blame on the truck driver but then destroyed the report (and issued a new one) after speaking to the truck driver’s dispatcher in another state! We discovered law enforcement allowed the truck to leave the scene without any close inspection. And, a key witness was not even listed. All of those actions allowed the trucking company to contest the events. We were able to piece together events and help our client. Because of these events, I’ve written a couple past articles discussing the rapid response teams used by many large trucking companies. Drone videos or measurements would have made our job much easier in this truck crash case!
Some private reconstruction experts have also begun employing drone use. While the expense likely limits private drone reconstruction to only very serious injury cases, private drones do offer several benefits. Law enforcement officers are not likely to shut down a major roadway so a private expert can inspect the scene. It is often both difficult and dangerous to reconstruct events around an open roadway. When I take a case, I always visit the scene. Several years ago I visited the scene of a logging truck accident with our expert. My clients were traveling down a rural road in their pickup truck when a logging truck slammed into them. They told us the logging truck came over a hill traveling far, far in excess of the speed limit. I can still remember standing at the scene months later. The road was not frequently traveled. Yet, as we inspected the scene another logging truck crested the same hill way too fast. We all moved quickly for cover.
Is Drone Use Limited?
Of course, both the equipment and personnel needed to operate drones costs money. Beyond the costs, drone operations also require training. And, drones are subject to FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) rules.
Because of the rules, law enforcement agencies cannot use drones in all situations. And, law enforcement agencies cannot simply launch drones everywhere! In 2020, the FAA published a Drone Response Playbook For Public Safety. As more law enforcement agencies train with this technology, the FAA is likely to continue updating its safety guidelines.
Do you have questions about a car or truck accident? Let us know. We are happy to answer your personal injury questions. From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm handles serious personal injury cases across Alabama.