Behind the cordon - looking at what happens when the Collision Investigation Unit (CIU) are called in
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Staffordshire Police understands the frustration drivers feel when their plans are delayed by a road traffic collision (RTC).
But behind the cordon, there is a lot going on and officers are working as quickly as possible to establish what happened.
The next instalment in a series of features going behind the cordon when a collision has occurred looks at the roles of the Forensic Collision Investigation Unit (FCIU) and the Serious Collision Investigation Unit (SCIU) when they are called in.
The two specialist teams are on-hand to investigate the more serious collisions which have closed the road because there is either a fatality or there have been injuries which are so serious they threaten the life of the casualty.
Thankfully, collisions like this don’t happen every day. But when they do, the collision investigators know they have a very succinct window in which to gather all the information and evidence they require for investigations before the road is reopened to traffic.
“It’s the most serious of collisions we get called out to,” said Sgt Ben Foster, the Senior Forensic Collision Investigator for the force.
Ben said there were “two sides” to collision investigation work.
The FCIU officers carry out a forensic examination, similar to the work of specialist forensic teams you would find at a murder scene. They examine the area, take photographs, mark out and label evidence and bodies, survey the scene with surveying equipment, and carry out an initial examination of vehicles before they are securely recovered by specialist vehicle examiners. There are also other critical areas of recovery that need doing at the scene to avoid loss of evidence, such as tachograph downloads from vehicles.
SCIU officers carry out all the witness and suspect investigation and case file work. They are identifying witnesses, taking statements, carrying out breath tests and interviewing those involved to create the case that is handed to the Crown Prosecution Service later on.
“The SCIU also have a lot of work to do with identifying CCTV or dash-cam footage that may have covered the incident and tracing everybody involved, which includes next of kin,” Ben added. “Are the family aware the casualties have gone to hospital, for example?”
In terms of the work the FCIU officers carry out, Ben compared the cordoned off scene currently blocking the road with a house where a person has been found dead.
“The house would remain locked down and secure for days and you’d have a number of different specialist teams coming in and doing different strands of forensic work or recovery,” he said. “When it’s on the road we have just one chance to examine, photograph, survey, seize and recover absolutely everything.
“There can be added pressures due to the impact of inclement weather on evidence recovery. So we have to make sure we do the job right while we are there because we don’t have the luxury of closing the road again or keeping it closed until the weather is better, for example.”
There is of course the added factor that when the road reopens there may be hundreds if not thousands of vehicles driving straight across the scene and the road needs to be made safe again for other motorists before it opens.
“Not so much on local roads, but definitely on the main trunk roads and motorways we are being asked before we’ve even got there ‘how long are you going to be?’” said Ben. “Because when you take the human emotions out of it, these major roads need to keep moving for the country to operate properly.
“You’ve also got response and neighbourhood police officers who have commitments and jobs to attend within their own communities, who might have to be sat manning the cordon for hours keeping the road closed. These officers then have to resume their duties having been involved in what can be upsetting circumstances."
And Ben had a message for those drivers who might be stuck by a cordon growing frustrated.
“You see messages online and things saying ‘how long is it going to be closed?’ and ‘how long is this going to take?’ I understand that, but we have to do this properly – any death on the road is treated as an unexplained death until we can say otherwise. We get this one chance of recovering all the evidence from the road and it’s crucial for the families of those that die and for justice that we do.
“There is a reason the road might be closed for so long, because there is a lot of work that is going on that has to be done to an exact and precise standard. If we miss something, it can have serious consequences down the line. We have to be absolutely meticulous and you cannot rush something like that.
“Please remember that while you may be an hour or two late for a meeting or getting home to your family, there will be a family somewhere who will never see their loved one walk through the door again.”
So next time you find a police cordon in place at the scene of a collision, please spare a thought for those involved on the other side and be assured all is being done to get you on your way as soon as it is safe to do so.