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Traffic crash reports - how detailed?

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

McHenry County, Illinois

Traffic crash reports - how detailed?

Gus Philpott
Woodstock Advocate
August 4, 2013


When a vehicle crash occurs, police are usually called to the scene and make a report.

How detailed should a Crash Report be? Crash reports must be completed following injury crashes and if a crash involves damage beyond the minimum State threshold.

The crash report is filled out for various reasons. It documents what happened.

How does the investigating officer learn what happened? Typically, he'll gather information from the driver, any passengers and any witnesses. And he should observe the crash scene and record his observations.

Reports can be brief, but they should be complete.

OK, let's hear your opinion about this report: "DU#1 was traveling north bound [sic] on Dean St. and struck a sign, on the right side of the roadway while avoiding a deer." (End of Report)

"DU#1" represents Driver of Unit #1.

Brief? Check.

Complete?

This single-vehicle crash occurred on Monday morning, July 15, 2013, at about 4:31AM.

The vehicle involved was McHenry County Sheriff's Department squad car #560, which was being driven by Deputy Jason Novak.

Perhaps this explains why the police report is so brief and vague. Not because it was Deputy Novak driving, but because a law-enforcement officer was driving. Is the Thin Blue Line alive and well in McHenry County?

What might have made this crash report more complete?

Among other things, the driver's statement of his speed and complete explanation of what was happening just before the crash.

The investigating officer's report indicates the speed limit was 35. Actually it was 45MPH, and the crash occurred right at the beginning of the 35MPH speed zone. The report says the crash occurred 400 feet south of U.S. 14; it may have actually been 1,000 feet south of Davis Road. This picky point may not be too important, because Woodstock's 35MPH speed limit sign and post were probably at the beginning of the 35MPH speed zone, and the sign's condition is a clear indicator that the crash occurred right there.

The reason that this could be important is the likely speed of the vehicle when it left the road. It flattened the sign and signpost, and debris on the east shoulder indicated the car continued some distance up the shoulder.

The report doesn't state how the officer knew (believed) the driver was avoiding a deer. If that's what the driver said, then the report should say so.

The report doesn't state and the diagram doesn't show
1. where the vehicle left the roadway or
2. where the vehicle stopped after smashing the sign and signpost.

Did the driver (deputy) swerve off the road to avoid a deer? Did he hit his brakes? If he swerved off the road, did the squad car go into the field after running over the sign?

Evidence at the scene (the flattened sign and signpost) indicated that the squad car was traveling pretty much parallel to the roadway. Was the deer some distance before the speed limit sign? Did the deputy swerve there to avoid a deer and then steer straight down the shoulder?

How far ahead of the car was the deer, when the deputy first saw it? Was it standing in the road, walking across, or did it bound suddenly from one side of the road across the roadway?

All of that ought to be in the crash report.

I asked the question in a previous article, was there a "black box" (event data recorder) in the squad car and were the contents evaluated? The Crash Report of the Woodstock Police Department is silent about that. Perhaps a FOIA request to the McHenry County Sheriff's Department would reveal the diagnosis of the black box. If there was one in that squad car, prudence would dictate that the Sheriff's Department would examine it and use its contents to evaluate the driver's actions at the time of the crash.

What does a black box reveal? Speed, acceleration, braking, etc. Would it disclose sudden swerving, as might happen to avoid an animal? Click on the link in the previous paragraph for an NPR article about black boxes.

I wondered whether Deputy Novak activated his overhead emergency lights upon coming to a stop. Doing so would warn approaching drivers of an accident scene. If he did so, the previous 30-60 seconds of the dashboard videocamera recording (if there was a dashcam) would have been preserved. The deer would have been seen in the headlights.

Squad 560 was equipped with the Automatic License Plate Reader. Does it have a videotaping mechanism like a dashcam? Or is it only a license plate number recognition device that doesn't store actual images of a plate, only the digital recognition?

It may be that all Woodstock PD crash reports are as brief as this one. In any event, it passed muster with the investigating officer's supervisor and made it into the records.



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