Res Ipsa Loquitur: The facts speak for themselves

This phrase is used in court in reference to cases where the evidence is self-explanatory that there is (practically) no need for further argument. This is a very important concept that is often used as a core argument in prosecutions and one can understand that such cases would exit – cases where the facts literally speak for themselves.
But how easy is it to achieve a Res Ipsa Loquitur argument? Very easily, if you believe the arm-chair judges that adorn our Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp message streams with their often uninvited opinions on who is guilty and who is not, even while facts are still streaming in.

Let’s look at the real-world examples of very serious road traffic collisions involving multiple fatalities, many vehicles and long periods of road closure. The fact is the road traffic crashes are no different from bombing attacks, aircraft disasters or building collapses, as we have seen in recent times. They all result in the loss of many lives. They are all unpredictable. They all result in severe losses, carnage and injuries in masses. They all attract attention and draw people into the mass hysteria that invariably follows. 

After any disaster, vast amounts of information will invariable start streaming in and out in all directions. Everyone with access to any platform of communication will invariably “weigh in” and contribute in some way – positive or negative – to the overwhelming amount of information that will be spewed into the global online and physical village. The information will always flow along a pre-determined path of arrival/dissemination process:

Phase One – Random Data Noise

This is when a lot of intelligence comes in all at once.  Everybody has a bit of information, people react emotionally and offer opinions where none is asked, people get information wrong and yet others purposely plant information towards some end of self-preservation. This is called white noise. You get tons of data: Messages, News Reports, Media Releases, Social Media Posts, Television News coverage, Police Investigation Feedback, Emergency Service reports, etc.

When the Terrible 50 car pile-up happened on the N12 Highway near Alberton in Gauteng, South Africa, there was a data frenzy. First, there were reports via Twitter. This platform lists the number of characters to 150. This means that people started to try to get as much information across in as little “talk” as possible. Messages like “multi-car pile-up, truck lost control, many dead, 50 vehicles!” came through. Twitter went abuzz with “OG, really!?” and “where exactly?” posts.

Next came the photographs people were taking, as they are driving past, showing the carnage. Many people tweeted images from this very serious disaster involving tens of vehicles, several dead people and loss, pain and suffering we can only dream of!

After this, emergency service workers – the custodians of our safety, security and even dignity – start to “get in on the act.” The world sat and watched in shock as images flashed across their phone, computer and tablet screens; literally, from the proverbial front lines, we watched the carnage in horror and intrigue. 

Finally, the media got in on the act. Now it was national news. Everyone who is anyone suddenly ‘knew what happened” at the scene. The reports, images, death-toll and further reports all but consumed the harts and minds of everyone who had access to social media or the new. AT this very early stage, information (yes-intelligence) streamed in, in an uncontrolled fashion. People were using this “white noise” to draw conclusions and form opinions and they liked to share it. There was an almost immediate reference to a “tanker that went out of control” and to suggestions for what must be done to the “guilty driver.”

But when it comes to the management of intelligence, this is the time when opinions, suggestions and allegations are least needed. This is the craziness of the world that overwhelms us and drives us towards what we naturally do: to tell people how we intend to or did process the inevitable and very complex set of emotions that follow exposure to this kind of universal disaster. When the Field’s Hill, Pinetown crash happened, special groups were formed to support the “poor driver who was left in the lurch by the truck owner” before the evidence was even collected. They continued to support the driver and questioned every piece of evidence that became available against their pre-conceived ideas of guilt and cause. The first phase of intelligence involves the invariable flood of information, the overwhelming misinterpretation of facts and the constant frustration of the investigation efforts by those very people who claim to demand “fairness and justice for all!”

Phase Two – Active Intelligence Detection / Collection

This is what happens at crash scenes. While the white noise of random data releases, unsolicited opinions, demands for justice and even final judgement abound from people as far as worlds away, forensic investigators are meticulously sifting through the available evidence for clues. Elements of the incident or event that will help them determine true, objective cause. Within hours of the N12 collision, people “concluded” that a “tanker had gone out of control.” Even news reports from the scene, were evidence was clearly visible seemed to have been influenced by this “public consensus.” But the physical facts started to speak for themselves.

Soon, the many images that were on the social media made it onto the desk of myself, Stan Bezuidenhout, renowned Road Traffic Collision Homicide Reconstructionist. As an unchallenged expert, I immediately filtered out the white noise, looked at the elements of evidence that was clearly visible and – as a proper sleuth should – viewed the evidence objectively for clues.  Almost every road safety advocacy group from the Arrive Alive Website to Justice Project South Africa and “Fatal Moves” swarmed me for an opinion. 

I immediately applied the rules of active intelligence collection and looked for the most usable and relevant elements of evidence – photographs taken at-scene. I also got in contact with the tanker company involved in the collision to get insight into the kinds of evidence they might be able to offer: things like tracking reports, in-vehicle video camera recordings, their driver’s version, etc. Sifting through the available evidence, deciding the gravity of each piece of evidence, testing it against other intelligence sources and separating the emotional opinions of uninvolved parties from the tangible evidence from those on the scene is classical intelligence management protocol – ad Stan does this better than most.

Phase Three – Intelligence reporting

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (the FBI) describes an intelligence report as follows: “A report, based on known, confirmed and relevant facts, designed and presented in a format that will enable decision makers to introduce and develop policies and introduce systems and processes towards a specific goal.”

This is not what the white noise borne from a societal and even a media frenzy does I meticulously and carefully analysed the available evidence – handpicked in support of his efforts – and was able to present an opinion within less than 24 hours: The tanker was never the cause of the collision. Evidence clearly shows that another truck had moved right past the tanker, damaging it in the process. I realised that there were vehicles that were clearly damaged ahead of the tanker’s position – positions where the tanker could never have been. There was another vehicle that was the cause of the collision.

The intelligence stream then started to fizzle to a trickle and then information started leaking about a faulty brake system, prior convictions and illegal licenses for the driver of the “juggernaut of death.” Almost as soon as I was able to identify the vehicle responsible for most of the carnage, the first police reports were released. Now all the armchair prosecutors, judges and executioners had to eat their proverbial words. “Oops! I was wrong then!” one twee read, “Typical. They go after the driver of the vehicle in the worst state” read another.

So-what was the conclusion? What did we learn rom the available and verified intelligence?

In matters of this kind, we always get a total overload of information in the early stages, as people react to the invariable emotional shock of what they see, saw or heard about. This affects people at the scene and those following the matter via the media, through friends or via social media. People feel the need to respond to every snippet of information – some for ‘hits’ and others for ‘re-tweets’ and ‘likes,’ but many merely for the sake of coping with the emotions they are feeling. After almost every serious case, I get phoned, sent messages, mentioned and/or asked directly by all and sundry firstly whether I am or was at this scene and then obviously what I think the cause of the collision was.

Initially, it was simply overwhelming. It was as if everyone had only one thing to talk about – this serious collision involving upwards of 50 vehicles and several trucks that resulted in absolute carnage and the death of several victims. This was big news!

While the public opinion was focused on the tanker as the target of judgement and demands for justice, I started to receive photographs from many people via a wide variety of sources – some even from the scene, taken by emergency workers present there. I was able to construct – for myself – a very detailed “mini map” of the carnage. It was possible for me to start to piece together the sequence of events. 

At first, I was almost fooled as well. So many people were focused on the tanker as the “juggernaut of death.” Luckily, I normally follow the scientific principle and test both the prevailing hypothesis and its antithesis. It was during this analysis from afar that I detected the first flaws in traditional thinking: That tanker was stationery on the road in a position further back than where the carnage continued and certainly behind the only other vehicle involved that was heavy enough to cause such carnage. 

People were quick to jump on the speed argument as well. Even when the tanker craziness was proven to be a false assumption, people started to focus on speed as a factor. But speed is relative. Just how fast does a truck need to be going to cause such carnage? Not very fast at all, I’ll tell you. Remember that 80Km/h is a legal speed, but a truck encountering parked light motor vehicles on a downhill is going to cough through them as if they are not there. It takes a lot to stop a truck because they can easily weigh 30 to 40 times what cars do.

Next, I received reports of a faulty brake system, and made use only of very reliable sources in this regard. I quickly learned that the truck was seemingly so poorly maintained that some wheels did not even have functional brakes at all and yet others no brake shoes or brake mechanisms installed. The truck was clearly in a poor state of mechanical repair, if the at-scene evidence made available was to be believed.

 How do we stop this from happening again?

If we could get South Africans to understand the importance of proper at-scene and post-event road traffic crash investigation analysis and expert testimony, then perhaps we can start to teach illegal operators and criminally aggressive drivers that their actions have consequences. I hope and pray that one day, all crashes will be properly investigated, properly analysed and properly presented in court. This is what I aim to do with every one of my cases. And it has worked well for me, thus far….”

By and large serious road traffic collisions are subject and influenced by the same intelligence evolution seen in what is typically described as more serious cases: Bombing, aircraft disasters, building collapses, mass kidnappings. All affect us emotionally, They all force us to face our own mortality. We easily and readily start attacking the powers that be for having done nothing to prevent those disasters. Next, we try to decide who caused pit and who should be hung out to dry – literally. We also decide that the systems are failing, law enforcement is failing and that “other road users” are somehow to blame. 

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