Forensic Awareness


When it comes to the carnage on our roads, everyone agrees, It is getting out of hand, we need to do something and the current efforts are failing us dismally, writes Forensic Collision Homicide Reconstructionist Stan Bezuidenhout

While it has become common for people to use the term accident, I feel that the use of this term is essentially inaccurate. Since I deal primarily in facts and evidence, accident is hardly the correct and accurate description or reference to use – in spite of its popularity.

Let us agree that an accident is best described as something unintentional, something typically not leading to death or injury and something that cannot be reasonably foreseen.

When you reach for your sandwich and knock over your coffee, you’ve had an accident. You never intended it, you could not reasonably predict it would happen and you certainly didn’t cause much harm or injury – other than the stain on your white shirt, or worse: your wife’s.


When it comes to public or human safety, you are faced with an array of legal references that place a duty on you to take reasonable care, to keep a proper look-out, to operate your vehicle (or equipment) with due regard (to the safety of yourself and/or others) and to increase your state of awareness or reduce your risk (drive slower for instance) as the operating environment becomes more complex.

In the light of these references, nothing is ever truly an accident anymore. Now not looking is an offense that can lead to your prosecution. Then there is the ‘look but failed to see syndrome that has been proven to exist through laboratory testing: humans are capable of casting their eyes on a specific stimulus (it was a motorcycle in the test), to actually connect with that stimulus for a measurable period and still not being aware (identifying) the stimulus (or threat) or the danger associated thereto. So, w it comes to road traffic collisions, you will quickly grasp that the model of analysis becomes much more complex and the use of the word ‘accident far less applicable, in the true sense.

The second issue we need to be aware of is the fallibility of the process of conventional thinking. The days of the engineers know best’ are Car gone as we use better research methods and as we learn more of the complexities of the human mind as an integral part in the analysis of cause and Conventional thinking would suggest that better control would certainly result in reduce risk, right? Well – maybe not so much.

Take the work done by Mondermann in a small village in the Netherlands called Makkinga in Friesland. A traffic safety engineer by trade, Mondermann decided that the only way to increase road safety was by considering the interaction between the ‘traffic world’ and the ‘social world’ and the prevailing ownership friction caused by forcing the two together. He immediately realised that there was a war of sorts, relating to ownership of the space. As pedestrians believed that the road belonged to them while they were using it and drivers believed they owned the road too, the effect was a negative attitude.


He argued that there are places where the car would be a social guest rather than the exclusive owner of space. So, he had all the signs removed from the village, had one sign installed outside of town that limited the speed in the village to 30Km/h and added ‘verkeersbordvrij’ to the sign. This means ‘free of traffic signs’. The result was phenomenal and almost instantaneous. As vehicles continued to use the village in the absence of statutory external control, drivers started applying a natural risk homeostasis algorithm (they felt it was unsafe to move too quickly) as pedestrian and vehicle traffic now interfaced freely.

The road safety statistics skyrocketed, collisions are all but unheard of and the model was so effective that a project implemented by the European Union is currently seeing seven cities and regions clear-cutting their forest of traffic signs. Ejby, in Denmark, is participating in the experiment, as are Ipswich in England and the Belgian town of Ostende.

There are many additional examples of how conventional thinking has been counter-productive, but more in later instalments. For now, it is important to note that the mere historical existence of one system of belief is hardly indicative of its applicability or exclusive compatibility to a particular aspect of road safety or risk analysis.

Enter the issue of private crash investigation. There are arrays of legal, moral and ethical considerations where individuals decide or are necessitated to gather evidence, take photographs or investigate their own road traffic collisions. Think of it as a work in progress. In most jurisdictions In Africa it is the mandate and job of the police services to investigate crimes. At the same time a shortage of manpower, resources and skills as well as the political attitude towards an accident often means that these go uninvestigated, or poorly investigated or are merely recorded by those very officers appointed to attend the scenes.

In many cases, you won’t be allowed to take photographs or to investigate your own collision as issues relating to control and mandate, legal implications, possible exposure of poor skill and lack of resources or corrupt practices might be exposed. Whatever the reason, you are essentially trapped in a world where your reliance and trust in the system could result in your disadvantage.

Consider the issue of security. It is the job and mandate also of police to ensure public order and stay, yet you are Forced to invest heavily in security barriers (bars and fences), in security services and on private companies responding to your security needs. Not unlike the trend in this industry, the use of private contractors to take over part of the work of the police services and forces in Africa has become commonplace in Africa, as it has abroad, in relation to road traffic collisions.

But before you rush off and appoint a Private Collision Homicide Reconstructionist, we need to clarify your role in the process. What can you do to ensure that the expert is effective at his job? In this industry, like in any relating to the collection of evidence, the final result is only as good as the accuracy and reliability of the information it rests on.

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