Cop uses clues to determine accidents' causes

January 17, 1999


photo: KEVIN G. GILBERT / staff photographer

For Hagerstown City Police Officer Richard Moats, little things do mean a lot.

As an accident reconstructionist, it's his job to recreate events that caused a crash. That can mean finding out the amount of air in the tires or their tread level, whether the windows were rolled up or at what volume the radio was set. And all of that is in addition to obvious factors such as speed, weather conditions, traffic levels and skidmarks.

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Moats has been with the city police for the past 24 years. In 1987, he became certified as an accident reconstructionist after completing almost 300 hours of training. Since then, he has more than tripled his training hours taking courses to keep current. He is the chairman of the Transportation Advisory Committee for Washington County, which studies county-wide traffic issues.


As a reconstructionist, Moats uses observations, mathematical equations and the laws of physics to make his determinations.

"I've always wanted to be a reconstructionist," he said. "I find it fascinating to investigate and determine what happened and why."

His interest in physics and math made him a natural for the field.

Moats does a full reconstruction, including a report and diagrams of the scene, for every fatal accident in the city and accidents involving police vehicles. That amounts to two or three complete reconstructions, and about 12 partial ones, annually.

Reconstructionists, according to Hagerstown City Police Sgt. Kenneth Wasilius, play an important role in investigating an incident.

"They're important for serious accidents, particularly for fatals," he said. "They provide information on key issues for the state's attorney's office about speed and negligence."

When completing a reconstruction, "you take an accident scene and work backwards," Moats said.

When Moats is called to an accident scene, he is first briefed by the investigating officers, he said. He then speaks with witnesses and inspects the vehicles for damage, determining how they collided.

Using a checklist, he makes a thorough inspection of the scene and records his observations. No detail is overlooked.

"I treat it like a homicide scene," he said.

Moats notes the sequence of lights if an accident occurred at an intersection.

"I also consider at what point could they have avoided the accident," he said.

For more in-depth reconstructions, Moats may crawl under a car and inspect its mechanical parts to determine the cause of the accident. When accident victims are hurt, he considers the type of injuries and the direction in which bones may have been broken.

"A lot of it is common sense," he said.

He remembers investigating a fatal accident in February 1996, in which a truck was initially believed to have hit a boy on a bike, killing him.

Moats' investigation revealed that the child died from head and neck injuries sustained when he fell off his bicycle. The boy was not wearing a helmet.

Moats said he found the boy was too small for the bike he was riding. He apparently lost control of the bicycle and fell to the road as the tractor-trailer was passing.

The only contact between the boy and the truck was a scraping of the boy's left arm by the tire of the truck's fourth axle, and it brushed the child after he was down, Moats said.

"There were no crushing injuries," he said.

He said the truck driver originally thought he had hit the child.

Moats reconstructed the scene with evidence he collected there and from interviews with the driver and Washington County Sheriff's Deputies who were in the vicinity at the time of the accident.

Investigating officers may decide to cite individuals involved in a crash based on Moats' findings, he said.

Occasionally, he is called to testify about his determinations in court, he said.

He said he will often contact accident reconstructionists at the Washington County Sheriff's Department and the Maryland State Police for their assessment of an accident.

It takes Moats about 40 hours to complete a full reconstruction, such as a fatality, and eight hours for a partial one.

"Most accidents are from people failing to pay attention, just not concentrating on their driving," he said.

Despite having investigated thousands of accidents, Moats said he always enjoys the challenge each reconstruction brings.

"After 24 years on the job I never get complacent," he said.

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