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Trucking Accident Investigations

Telematics is a boon for those who conduct forensic vehicle investigations. Find out why.

February 17, 2016 Photo

Today’s road warriors haul more than cargo across U.S. roadways. With every mile driven, real-time vehicle and driver information flows from onboard data hubs, commonly known as telematics devices, to fleet logistics centers for compiling and reporting. The gathered intelligence helps fleet managers keep the freight carriers moving. The upside of telematics use is efficiency, timeliness, cost control, and regulatory compliance. For one-off events like accidents and theft, the accumulation of real-time data helps decipher crash events and track missing cargo and vehicles.

For the trucking industry, telematics has been transformative, but those gains are not limited to large-scale cargo haulers. Businesses of all sizes with company-owned vehicles are relying more and more on telematics technologies to improve their operations. The benefits of telematics also accrue to insurers that can leverage the intelligence gleaned from the data to evaluate shared liability, fight fraudulent claims, and identify subrogation opportunities.

Telematics is a boon as well for those who conduct forensic vehicle investigations because it facilitates compilation of a comprehensive crash narrative. While the data does not supplant traditional analytical methods, it significantly amplifies the understanding of a crash with prompt, actionable insights.

Telematics Essentials

Initially used in the 1900s to track vehicles in transit and to send messages, current telematics systems harness 3G/4G cellular and Wi-Fi to deliver real-time data on vehicle and driver performance to fleet managers who then can anticipate and react to issues developing on the roadway. Telematics gathers, forwards, and stores data from location services, onboard vehicle technologies, and any other available on-vehicle source.

For route tracking, the telematics device senses global positioning satellites (GPS) and uses those signals to determine the vehicle’s location and travel path. With the addition of ground-based reference stations, location accuracy can reach three to five meters. Vehicle speed can be calculated as well. Ultimately, the gathered information is sent in real time over a cellular signal to the central server of a telematics provider for data processing, storage, and reporting. Companies with large fleets often rely on their own systems to compile the data.

A good portion of the data collected by the telematics system comes from onboard microprocessors like the engine control module (ECM). The lynchpin aboard the vehicle is an internal data bus, which funnels data from all the control modules installed on a typical modern heavy-duty vehicle. The telematics device is essentially a computer attached to the data bus that processes and forwards collected data to an external source. The interaction of the data bus and the telematics unit facilitates the monitoring of fault codes in the vehicle’s internal systems. Fleet managers receive timely updates on the vehicle’s status, which ultimately helps them keep their vehicles operational. An accident investigator can access that fault data to help reconstruct the events that led to a crash.

Another valuable data source is the driver service log, especially when it is embedded in the telematics system. These log hours can be recorded on paper; however, the information is more reliable if a driver is transferred automatically on and off duty status by a system that senses vehicle motion. Electronic driver logs tied to telematics with constant GPS locators ensure that drivers stay in compliance with the local laws where they are operating and further bolsters data reliability.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) requires most commercial drivers to inspect and report on key mechanical aspects of their vehicles while in transit. Of course, this can be a paper report, but that means a time-constrained driver could check off the list without physically inspecting the items. Not so with a telematics-based reporting system, which not only takes driver input from each examination, but also records the inspection duration. Some systems even have electronic tags at designated spots, which compel the driver to be in proximity to each tagged location with a scanner. Thus, for accident investigators, the data from these electronic inspections can validate the accuracy and completeness of a maintenance record.

Telematics and Accident Investigations

The details of a recent tractor-trailer accident demonstrate how telematics data can help reveal accident causation and sometimes even eliminate further investigation. On the night of the accident, it was dark and clear. Traffic was sparse and no lights illuminated the roadway. The highway had unregulated north and southbound lanes, while a yield sign at an intersection controlled the east and westbound traffic. The parties to the accident included a veteran tractor-trailer driver on the northbound highway, who was completing the last leg of an in-state delivery, and an older sedan driver, who was heading home on the eastbound road from an all-day event. The sedan driver felt it was safe to proceed across the highway but was hit on the passenger side by the tractor-trailer.

The tractor-trailer’s driver called in the accident immediately. His company noted the vehicle’s location and log data via their fleet-management interface and flagged the records for review. Beyond the electronic testimony, the highway patrol documented the scene and physical evidence. An independent scene inspection was done the following day as well as examinations of vehicle lighting and braking systems.

While law enforcement dissected the accident scene, the trucking company created a report from the telematics data showing that the truck had been traveling at a maximum of 62 miles per hour (mph)—below the posted three-axle speed limit of 65 mph—just prior to the crash. The data also noted a hard-braking episode at the time of the accident. There were no engine fault codes recorded before the braking event, but the fault codes triggered after impact were consistent with the damage to the front of the truck.

The data revealed that it took four seconds to drop from 62 mph to 22.5 mph, a speed change of 39.5 mph that correlates to an average deceleration of about .4g for the truck and a stopping distance of about 260 feet. Aside from the driver’s adherence to the speed limit, the record also showed that he had not deviated from his route and had taken appropriate breaks. Not only was he attentive to the driving task, he actively tried to avoid a crash with a hard-brake application.

The potent combination of physical evidence and telematics testimony pointed to the conclusion that the sedan driver’s miscalculation caused the crash. That clear assignment of fault ultimately discouraged a liability claim by the other party, an ideal and speedy outcome of telematics use for claims management.

While telematics delivers GPS details and information about vehicle systems operations at a specific point in time, the data can be misleading if not interpreted with care. There are many nuances—geographical and meteorological factors, for example—that might color the results of the examination. As demonstrated in the tractor-trailer accident, telematics data is best when used in conjunction with and supported by a thorough engineering analysis and not as stand-alone testimony. Thorough determination of relevance requires a comparison of the telematics data to other physical evidence.

The future is now for telematics with most trucking and school bus fleets harnessing the technology. Passenger vehicles also are seeing similar applications with LoJack, Snapshot from Progressive, and OnStar from General Motors. If the expected trajectory plays out in the automotive industry, telematics or a GPS system will be standard equipment by 2025 for new vehicles on the roadway. Ultimately, the gain of expanded usage for insurers and accident investigators will shorten the claims cycle, shed light on fraudulent activity, and facilitate the recovery of stolen vehicles and cargo.

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About The Authors
Joel Amundson

Joel Amundson is an associate at Peter R. Thom and Associates, a forensic automotive consulting and engineering firm.  

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