It's a real crash course: Wreck investigators from all over have a smashing time at Charleston event

Joey Parker, with Doughty and Powers Engineering in Alabama, downloads the information taken from monitors inside a car that was crashed intentionally during a training exercise for the S.C. Highway Patrol.

JEDBURG -- The Crown Vic slammed into the Dodge sedan and sent it spinning, spraying chrome and glass. Investigators moved in to eye the crushed panels, peer through the shattered windows. Andy Anderson carefully stepped to the far edge of the debris, picked up a shank of headlight casing and studied it.

His job is filaments, the tiny electric coils that light up bulbs in head, tail and brake lights. If the coil is intact, he can't say whether the light was on. If the coil is snapped off low, it was a cold break -- the light was off. Stretched straight and singed, it's a "hot shot." This light was on.

A hair-thin bit of coil, evidence that a brake light was off or on, can determine accident reports, traffic charges and court cases. That's how persnickety the art and science of accident investigation can be.

And that's why some 60 law enforcement officers, private and public investigators -- veteran accident reconstruction specialists from across the United States and Canada -- were out Monday crashing cars in an out-of-the-way Piggly Wiggly

Distribution Center parking lot off Interstate 26.

Anderson is an investigator for the Rockdale County, Ga., district attorney's office. He's a police veteran with 20 years of accident reconstruction experience. Every coil he can pull from a wreck like this, under controlled conditions, fully recorded and documented, can tell him a little more about the shattered lights found out on the road.

"There's always been a question of how close an impact has to be to a lamp to determine whether the light was on or off," he said. Test results like these give him a base line to answer that question, case by case.

The five-day conference, sponsored by the S.C. Highway Patrol and two reconstruction groups, takes place annually in Charleston, partly because Highway Patrol Lt. Ricky Dixon is a go-to guy for all three groups, partly because the destination makes it enough of a working vacation that a few investigators bring along their families.

It always starts with wrecking donated street cars and aged-out patrol cars, because the conference participants will use the data from the wrecks to present findings during the week.

"They can put their hands on the car, see it, smell it, feel it," Dixon said, then crunch the numbers to compare.

"We spend a lot of time figuring out how these things happen. This lets us know how it happened," said Claude Burkhead of Advanced Engineering Resources, in Apex, N.C.

You may be wondering about the guy slamming cars at 40 mph. Oh, he's fine.

Brad Muir, of Ontario, Canada, drives the cars by remote control, a little box that looks a lot like the device that runs radio-controlled planes, operating a framework of steel rods in the car that handles the steering wheel, gas and brake.

Muir is an Ontario Provincial Police officer who partners with David Marther, a retired S.C. Highway Patrolman, in Crash Data Specialists. They bring their expertise and equipment for cost only, that would otherwise costs thousands more. A lawman himself, he said he knows how important training is -- training that often falls victim to budget cuts. The learning experience is valuable for his business, too.

But don't let him fool you. His family is along for the week. And when the next Crown Vic comes tearing across the parking lot to smash into a Mercury Marquis, he lets out a whoop.

At this conference, he said, "they have really good cars to wreck."

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