Crash And Learn

Baldwin has spent 30 years investigating vehicle collisions

New technology is making our cars safer than ever, but it’s also giving us new ways to have accidents. Tim Dickson meets the man who works to find out what happened

This job used to be about grubbing around on the road, looking at tiny specks of stuff,” says Gary Baldwin, a 30-year veteran of Thames Valley Police’s Forensic Collision Investigation Unit, “but that’s only a tiny part of it now.” When Gary started his accident investigation work in 1988, skid marks were his “bread and butter”, but ABS put paid to those. Today, CCTV and dashcam footage are his staple.

“They have absolutely taken over,” he says. “At first, it was just CCTV in town centres and on motorway gantries, but dashcams have become more and more common. You don’t always get the full picture but they have definitely taken on a big role.”

Gary is now retired as an officer but remains a civilian manager of a team of nine, and you really don’t want to be involved in the kind of accidents they look into. “It’s any fatal that’s connected with a motor vehicle,” he says. “From a car falling off a jack while you’re underneath it to a multiple shunt on the motorway.”

She’d sent 20 text messages before she ran into the back of a broken-down car

In the late 1980s, there were around 5000 UK road deaths a year. Today, it’s less than 2000, but a level of tragedy is “almost inevitable”, says Gary. “The problem is those that are not surrounded by a car: pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists – the ‘vulnerable road users’. Cyclists still don’t get the message about riding up the inside of big vehicles at junctions. People just don’t understand how hard it is to see out of a lorry.”

A number of causative factors have changed. Drug driving is the new drink driving, vehicle defects are far less of an issue and ‘unintended acceleration’ crashes by elderly drivers are on the rise. (“Old people are becoming big customers of ours,” says Gary.) And then there’s the mobile phone effect, which Gary describes as “massive”.

The key word here is ‘distraction’. “When mobiles first came in, we were all concerned with drivers making calls,” he says. “But that’s nothing now compared with the problem of people typing messages and updating Facebook.” When Gary and his team arrive at the scene of a crash, phones are seized as a matter of course. “Whether we always know for certain if the phone was being used is a different matter,” he says. “Not every app stores everything you do, but texting and WhatsApp are time-stamped. The worst one I had was 20 messages before she ran into the back of a broken-down car – 20 texts about the plot of the previous night’s Emmerdale. It’s madness.”

<em>CCTV is often used to help piece together the events </em> <em>Airbag ECU has vital data – if you can access it </em> <em>Smartphones are a worrying distraction</em>

Gary is surprisingly pragmatic about the problem, so rather than prescribe a draconian legislative approach – “there are no traffic cops out there to enforce it anyway,” he says – he thinks a better interface with the car might be the best compromise. Auto-read and dictatable text message tech already exists, so extending that to other platforms could mitigate the issue – although that might be akin to suggesting the legalisation of crack and heroin. “Phones are a fact of life now, so we’ve got to make them less dangerous,” he concedes. “Make it less important that you have to hold the thing and, most importantly, make sure you’re looking up and ahead.”

Another piece of relatively recent tech has the potential to provide a goldmine of information, but, infuriatingly, Gary can’t always get his hands on it. Your car’s airbag ECU is, by its very nature, a reasonably sophisticated crash detection system which measures things such as velocity and angular accelerations – and, crucially, it records them. US law gives people in Gary’s position access to
that data, but here there’s no such compulsion.

“The airbag module is a really good way of finding out what happened,” says Gary. “It gives about five seconds of data before the crash and a couple of seconds after.”

These guys increasingly use tech for answers

Some car makers – Gary cites Toyota and Volvo, but there are more – provide the access codes, yet others refuse. “Some lie and tell us it’s not there,” he says. “But it is.” Gary shows us the data from a double-fatal collision involving a car and a motorcycle. It reveals the precise speed of the car in the lead-up to the crash, its deceleration, steering inputs and the impact with the bike, all in tenth-of-a-second increments. It’s exactly what Gary needs, but in many cases, it’s out of reach. A few years ago, there was talk that the EU was going to make it compulsory to provide the data, “but if it’s happening, I’ve not heard about it”, he says. “The car manufacturers are powerful. I presume they’re lobbying against it but I don’t know why.”

For all the unpleasantness Gary faces in his job, he stresses that our roads are safer than ever. New technology can take much of the credit, but attitudes have changed, too. “Now everyone wants their five-star NCAP rating,” he says. “Safety has become a selling point.” And it’s true: it has. So let’s all leave our phones alone while we’re driving, eh? Just to be on the safe side. A


While we’re talking, a call comes in about a possibly fatal crash on the M1 and Gary asks if we want to “go and have a look”. I wonder about the sensitivity of him turning up with a journalist and photographer in tow, but the incident turns out to be in Northamptonshire, off Gary’s patch.

As we listen to the radio chatter about the crash, another new tech-related issue is highlighted: the traffic cops can’t locate the accident. Gone are the days when people would stop and call in details from a motorway’s emergency phone. Now we use our mobiles, and sat-navs mean many people have no idea where they are at any given moment. “Half of them don’t know whether they’re going north or south, which junctions they’re between or even which motorway they’re on,” Gary says.

We’re supposed to use the ‘driver location signs’ (google ’em) on such occasions, “but no one knows about those,” says Gary. “You can spend a lot of time just driving up and down looking for a crash.”