Adding a new dimension to crash scenes

Road trials to begin next month could see UK police being equipped with new technologies for road traffic accident investigation.

The trials, which will be carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) and West Midlands Police, will evaluate the usefulness of a range of innovative surveying techniques that could enable more thorough and rapid investigations.

According to the Highways Agency, serious crashes cause almost a quarter of the congestion on the UK’s motorways. ‘Serious accidents require very detailed investigation and this can slow up the operation of the highway. We’re looking at systems that can increase the speed with which investigators look at accidents,’ said Iwan Parry, principal accident investigator at TRL.

Police surveying an accident scene currently rely on a system known as total station, an advanced electronic version of traditional surveying equipment. However, according to Parry, the technologies in next month’s tests offer potentially significant advantages over these systems.

The tests will evaluate an advanced version of total station that incorporates digital imaging and photogrammetry — a technique to extract 3D information from 2D photographs.

But perhaps most promising is the use of laser scanners. These gather data by measuring the time and angle at which lasers bounce off the scene and return to the scanner, and can be used to rapidly construct highly detailed 3D images of an accident scene.

‘The capability of laser scanners is that the amount of data gives us a full 3D preservation of the scene. Plus, once you capture data you can immediately start analysing it, and because it records colour information and differences in reflectivity you can measure things like skid marks,’ said Parry.

Much of the technology being studied has already been used by TRL in its own investigations, and the police have occasionally called on the group’s expertise in high-profile cases such as the Selby rail crash. But the trials could see this technology become a standard tool in the investigator’s arsenal.