Olathe — KHP troopers rely on bits of evidence, precise measurements and computers to answer questions about accidents on Kansas roads and highways.
Steve McKinzie and Jim Todd never know where they may be called to work next.
One day the two master troopers with the Kansas Highway Patrol may be working out of their office in Olathe. The next day they may be heading west on Interstate 70 to Hays or Colby.
And, depending on how things go on Kansas streets and highways, one or both may be on the job this Memorial Day weekend.
McKinzie and Todd are two of six KHP troopers on the patrol's Critical Highway Accident Response Team (CHART). The team was formed in April 1994 to provide in-depth investigation and reconstruction of some traffic accidents in the state.
All CHART members volunteer for the extra duties and handle CHART cases in addition to their regular KHP assignments.
To qualify for CHART, troopers must complete a special 80-hour course in accident reconstruction and a 40-hour course dealing specifically with reconstructing accidents involving commercial vehicles.
McKinzie, a 14-year veteran with the patrol, is CHART's coordinator. During his career, McKinzie has accumulated about 700 hours of training in accident reconstruction. He has investigated about 900 accidents, 68 of which resulted in one or more fatalities.
Kansas is one of seven states in the nation to have special accident reconstruction and investigation teams.
What they do
Spending an afternoon with McKinzie and Todd to learn about their job is something akin to learning a foreign language.
They talk about tire yaw marks -- sideways skid marks -- and vehicle autopsies -- extensive examinations to determine damage -- with the fluency of those who have lived their jobs for years.
"It's taking pieces of a puzzle, in this case physical evidence, and putting those pieces back together after the accident occurred," McKinzie said of accident reconstruction. "None of them (accidents) are the same. No puzzle is the same in this case."
Accidents CHART may investigate are those that occur on state highways and involve:
- At least one commercial vehicle, where fatalities either have occurred or are expected to occur.
- Three or more fatalities.
- A hazardous materials spill.
- A state vehicle where either serious injury or death occurs.
The team also will investigate accidents on city streets and county or township roads if called in by local law enforcement.
McKinzie says CHART has investigated about two dozen accidents since its inception.
There are no specific timetables for any of CHART's investigations. Investigators generally spend about two days examining and taking measurements at the accident scene. They may also spend additional time examining the vehicle or vehicles involved. Then, it's back to the office to generate the maps, diagrams and reports that will complete their inquiry.
Most CHART investigations focus on requests to determine the speed of a vehicle or vehicles at and prior to impact, who was driving, the location of the vehicles and the movements of the vehicles at and after impact.
"The only question we won't answer is who was at fault," McKinzie said. "That usually is up to the judge or jury or whoever is trying the case.
"There are some accidents where we simply won't be able to answer their questions," he said. "More times than not, there is enough physical evidence collected to pretty much answer their questions."
Check all sides
Although McKinzie and Todd are longtime lawmen, they don't let their occupations influence their investigative findings. Both stress that CHART's main purpose is to get to the truth behind an often tragic situation.
"You shouldn't be able to call in a reconstructionist and have him repeat your words," McKinzie said. "If there is a guilty person, we want to ensure that the guilty person is brought to justice. If there is a person who was involved in an accident and is suspected of some wrongdoing, but they aren't guilty, isn't it just as important to prove that person innocent as it is to prove someone guilty?"
Todd, a trooper since 1976, recounts an accident he reconstructed on I-70 near Colby where a semi-tractor trailer ran off the highway, struck an embankment, turned over and burned. The driver was killed.
An initial suspicion that the driver was intoxicated appeared to be confirmed by test results showing his blood alcohol content was .045 percent. Drivers of commercial vehicles are considered legally intoxicated if their BAC exceeds .04 percent.
Information Todd collected during his investigation didn't match up with a drunken driver. From all accounts, the driver never drank. Todd then talked to the coroner and found the elevated BAC could have resulted from natural fermentation that occurred when the body burned.
While a cause for the crash was never established, Todd's work did prevent the driver from being labeled as intoxicated.
What others say
Sgt. Terry Maple, a KHP spokesman, said CHART had proven itself beneficial to the patrol and public with no additional cost to taxpayers.
The team's initial equipment was paid for with money seized during drug interdiction efforts. A second set of equipment is being purchased with money provided by the federal government's Office of Motor Carrier Safety.
"It's been a valuable tool for us," Maple said of CHART. "It provides a trooper with another resource. Even though he is trained in accident investigation, it gives him another resource to aid in the investigation."
Maple speculates that for families of accident victims, CHART's work provides them the peace of mind that comes from knowing what happened.
Douglas County Sheriff Loren Anderson said he asked for CHART's assistance after a Dec. 17 accident in which two Lawrence teen-agers died.
Although CHART investigators were unable to answer Anderson's main question about the crash -- who was driving -- he says he wouldn't hesitate to ask them in again.
"They were able to tell us exactly what we had to do some assuming on," Anderson said. "It was helpful to all involved to know more precisely what occurred."
Jefferson County Undersheriff Jeff Herrig said CHART members were called in to investigate a March accident on U.S. Highway 24 in which a Lawrence man died. He said Jefferson County deputies wouldn't have been able to conduct the type of investigation CHART did.
"They've got much more training in accident reconstruction than we would ever hope to have because that's what they specialize in," Herrig said. "Even the regular patrolmen have had much more training than our guys have had.
"We are trained to take the report. This is one of the reasons we use the highway patrol. We don't have the expertise to handle major accidents."