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Career Profile: Traffic Crash Reconstructionist

Job Duties, Education Requirements and Salary Outlook for Investigators

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Have you ever looked at a set of skid marks and wondered how police could tell how fast a car was traveling? Maybe you've driven past what looked like a horrible traffic crash and wondered what happened. If so, you may be interested in a career as a traffic crash reconstructionist.

Traffic crash reconstruction is a special field within criminal investigations and forensic engineering. Reconstructionists are trained to identify factors involved in crashes such as speed and mechanical defects. They use mathematics and their knowledge of physics to determine what caused a crash and to assign fault or blame.

Job Functions and Work Environment

Traffic crash reconstructionists work in a variety of environments and for a number of different employers. They may be sworn law enforcement officers or they may work for private law firms, engineering consultants or private investigators.

In law enforcement agencies, traffic crash reconstructionists are often called "traffic homicide investigators," or THI. Traffic homicide investigators respond to scenes of serious, unusual or fatal crashes and determine the cause of the crash.

At the scene, traffic homicide investigators gather evidence and take measurements and photographs immediately after the crash occurred. From a law enforcement standpoint, crash reconstructionists focus on violations of the law with regards to the cause of crashes. Their reports are generally geared toward exonerating or charging drivers with crimes or infractions.

Private investigators and forensic engineering consultants, on the other hand, focus on civil issues and work with law firms on civil cases. Often, they will use the data and evidence collected by law enforcement as the foundation for their reports. They will also take their own measurements and photos of vehicles and roadways, though often weeks or months after the crash has actually occurred.

The job of a traffic crash reconstructionist often includes:

  • Taking photographs
  • Taking measurements
  • Performing advanced mathematical calculations
  • Identifying and analyzing evidence
  • Interviewing witnesses and suspects
  • Writing reports
  • Providing court testimony
  • Preparing warrants
  • Serving warrants
  • Making arrests
  • Dealing with grieving families

Traffic crashes leave unique evidence at the crash scene, including gauge marks, skid marks, debris and other indicators. Crash reconstructionists also coordinate other resources to assist in the investigation. For example, forensic science technicians may be called to collect DNA samples to identify drivers or paint samples to identify hit-and-run vehicles.

Law enforcement investigators may work different shifts, and may be called out to investigate crashes at all times of the day. The scenes they respond to are often gruesome. Exposure to biohazards is possible if proper precautions are not taken.

Education And Skill Requirements

For law enforcement agencies, certification from the state POST or the standards and training commission will be required, along with law enforcement academy training. Since it is usually a specialty position or promotion, there will be a minimum years of service requirement.

For private investigators or engineering consultants, either prior law enforcement experience as a traffic homicide investigator or a degree in engineering will be necessary.

In either case, a great deal of advanced and specialized training is required. Crash reconstructionists take courses in advanced traffic crash investigation and crash reconstruction, as well as pedestrian, commercial motor vehicle and motorcycle crash investigation. Strong mathematical skills are necessary, as is a firm understanding of physics and vehicle crash dynamics.

Job Growth and Salary Outlook

According the the Bureau of Labor Statistics, growth for investigators in all areas is expected to be around 10 percent, which is the average projected growth across all industries.

Salaries can vary widely, depending on region, agency and sector. Law enforcement investigators can expect to earn between $36,00 and $90,000. Private consultants may earn considerably more, commanding hourly fees of up to $100 or more.

Working as a crash reconstructionist is not an entry level job; experience in law enforcement or relevant engineering discipline is typically required.

Is a Career as a Traffic Crash Reconstructionist Right for You?

Crash reconstruction is a unique and fascinating investigative specialty. People who are interested in criminology careers and enjoy physics and mathematics will especially enjoy working as a crash reconstructionist.

Like so many careers in criminal justice, the nature of the work necessitates that investigators will be exposed to unpleasant and disturbing scenes. They will have to take and view graphic photographs and deal with death and grieving families.

The work is interesting and intellectually stimulating, but it takes a strong and compassionate person to work as a crash reconstructionist.

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