Exclusive: How DPS investigates fatal accidents on AZ freeways - Dallas News | myFOXdfw.com

Exclusive look at how DPS investigates fatal accidents on Arizona freeways

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PHOENIX -- A serious accident closes part of a local freeway and you're stuck in traffic. Seems to happen to just about everyone these days.

Any serious injury, death, or criminal act that takes place on the freeway has to be investigated, like any other crime scene.  Then add the pressure of opening up the roadway so people can get on with their lives.

Recently, the Department of Public Safety gave us an exclusive look into exactly how they investigate fatal accidents on the highway -- including the progression of technology that's helping officers get roads back up and running quicker than ever.

We've all been here at one point in time: stuck on the freeway.

Traffic at a complete standstill while officers investigate the crash.

One fatal accident a few weeks ago on Interstate 10 near Tempe had traffic at a standstill for hours while officers investigated.

"We believe that person had a medical event and that medical event caused him to lose control and crash into that Chevy Avalanche.. that Chevy Avalanche then lost control and went to the left side of the road.

DPS Officer Carrick Cook walked us through the scene.

"This isn't just a boom impact and everybody stopped moving.  This is a crash that happened at 65, 70 miles per hour, so all that inertia and movement pushes down the roadway."

The debris field stretched more than 300 feet down the highway.

"You've you've got evidence scattered throughout this entire road and those are the challenges we face," said Cook.

With mangled wreckage of cars left behind, how does DPS decipher what happened, be it a homicide scene or just an accident?

DPS has brought in these two wrecked cars on this closed portion of highway.  They're going to help us get a better idea of how they investigate a fatal accident.

"So what we're going to recreate here is a scene where someone was rear ended at a high speed, pushing the car off to the left," said Cook.

After a crash, it's a carefully choreographed operation.

At the Arizona Department of Transportation's traffic center, they immediately alert motorists of the crash and begin to work on alternate routes.

"The mission here is to keep people up to date," said ADOT's Doug Nintzel.

Meanwhile, first responders, including fire, DPS officers and tow truck operators work in unison to get the road open just as soon as possible.

"That's the goal of traffic incident management -- to have fire on board with us to know what to expect, the tow companies, the medical examiner if there is someone that is deceased at the scene," said Cook.

After placing multi-colored cones down -- representing skid marks, debris and other evidence, they begin their investigation.  DPS demonstrated four ways they do that, by starting with the most basic -- rolling tape and measuring the scene by hand.

"So you're plotting points, you know if you had your grid paper and I draw a straight line, you can plot all the points up and then basically connect the dots."

For a more accurate description, DPS uses surveying equipment or a GPS device.

"The satellites will triangulate everywhere I go with this pole.  It's a single person unit so you don't have to have two people conversing back and forth with eachother," said Det. Cam Siewert of DPS' vehicular crimes unit.

For the most detailed look, DPS has just recently begun using 3D scanning to record crash scenes.  Using white globes as reference points, the machine captures 197,000 points a minute, giving officers the most detailed look at a scene.

Officers say the increase in technology has allowed them to do their jobs more efficiently, which means roads won't be closed as long.

"It's our job, our responsibility and our honor to measure that and either present that to a jury for conviction or a family member to say this is exactly what happened that day and that we're sorry for that," said Cook.

While it's frustrating anytime you're stuck behind the wheel, know that DPS is working diligently to reopen the road and make sure everyone involved in that crash gets the closure they deserve.

ADOT is using it's Twitter account to also keep motorists up to date with closures or crashes to help with their morning or evening commute.

DPS has plans to add even ore of those 3D imaging units to help them investigate crash scenes.

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