Reconstructing Accident Scenes

Retired Officer Mike Winborn reconstructs accident scenes for the Society of Forensic Science.
Retired Officer Mike Winborn reconstructs accident scenes for the Society of Forensic Science.

During his career with the Huntsville Police Department, Michael Winborn (‘83) developed an expertise in piecing together evidence from vehicle accidents to determine a cause.

As an accident reconstructionist, Winborn’s job was to analyze the cause of an accident, using the reconstruction of a scene, evidence from victims and vehicles , interviews, and medical reports to determine what happened in the crash. He investigated about 60 accidents a year, from minor fender benders to multiple fatalities, and was certified as an expert in Walker County and Huntsville courts.

Accident reconstruction requires complex math and science, like trigonometry, geometry and physics.“I didn’t think as a police officer, I would need to know math,” said Winborn, who retired in 2005. “I took balancing a checkbook 101 in school. Then when I needed to know how to do this, I loved teaching myself geometry and trigonometry. I also had to use algebra, calculus and physics.”

Winborn recently shared lessons from the field with students from the Society of Forensic Science, which included his own daughter, Jessica Winborn, who is pursuing a master’s degree in forensic science with a goal of working in the FBI Crime Lab in toxicology or controlled substance.

“At first, I wanted to be a police officer like my Dad,” said Jessica Winborn, who comes from a family of Bearkats, which also includes her mother Diana, an accountant, and brother Michael Jr., a chemistry major. “He was my hero growing up. But my attention was caught by crime dramas like CSI and I became interested in becoming a forensic scientist instead. As I continued my education in college I fell in love with chemistry.”

Car in motion crashes into a tree, with debris flying.Policing and forensic science merge in accident investigations.

There are five levels in accident investigations, from simple documentation to complex analysis. The first level records the date and location of a crash. The second, a “typical” accident investigation, also incorporates information on the vehicles involved, the people involved and the road conditions. The third level adds technical reports, which including marking the scene and taking measurements. The fourth level expands to an analysis of the accident scene, including scaled drawings and formulas to determine point of impact, direction, distance, time and resting place. The fifth level incorporates an investigation of the victim, including autopsy, medical conditions, marks on the body and activities prior to the crash.

To develop his expertise, Michael Winborn participated in multiple courses offered by the Criminal Justice Academy at Texas A & M, the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education and the Texas Association of Accident Reconstruction Specialists. Among the trainings were accident reconstruction, motorcycle accidents, pedestrian and bicycle accidents, the use of a forensic map and CAD, medical conditions that affect driving, DWI investigations, tire failure, crashes involving trains, personal injury fraud, low speed crashes, truck dynamics, airbag technology, and child safety restraints, to name a few.

A map of an accident sceneIn addition to testifying in criminal cases, Winborn often is called for expert testimony in civil cases. In fact, his testimony led to the dismissal of a $3.2 million product liability case against a trucking company.

Winborn shared several cases with students, discussing the process that led to his conclusion. Take the case of a Conroe waitress, whose car was found lodged next to a tree in a wooded area alongside a major thoroughfare. Although bloody handprints were found on the driver’s side door, the waitress was discovered slumped in the passenger’s seat.

“The accident occurred at about 7 a.m., but the scene wasn’t discovered until 1 p.m.,” said Winborn.

One of the keys to reconstructing an accident is to interview friends and family to see what happened in the 24 hour period before the accident. In this case, the waitress had been on her way to pick up a friend and go to work; the victim had called her friend to see if she wanted a burger. In interviewing the victim’s parents, Winborn discovered she suffered from epilepsy and took Depakote to control her seizures. No Depakote was discovered in blood samples during her autopsy.

Evidence from airbags is important.Evidence at the scene suggested that the car drifted gently off the roadway and a mark on her chest showed she was slumped over the wheel when the airbag deployed. She tried to get out the driver’s side door, but couldn’t find the handle. She tried the passenger side instead, which was wedge shut by the tree.

The autopsy revealed that the victim’s spinal cord had been stretched, with blood pooling in the encapsulated area, causing her death.

In another case, Winborn investigated a truck accident involving two young men. One man was found dead on the road, while the second was sent to the hospital with serious injuries. The injured man claimed he was a passenger in the vehicle, but the evidence proved he was the driver.

With the front end of the truck caved in from its collision with a utility pole, Winborn surmised that the deceased was thrown out the front windshield by the impact because of the direction of glass and the sun visor on the car. In addition, the injured man had a bruise in the shape of a steering wheel on his chest and scrapes and bruises from where he hit the leg guard on the dashboard. Both men had been drinking heavily and an investigation showed that the deceased had to be carried out of the bar.

Jessica Winborn said she grew up with a constant reminder of her Dad’s career stored in her garage – a mangled light blue Mustang from a drunken driving accident that was used in high school presentations to prevent similar tragedies.

“It had a lot of influence on my driving habits and it was a visual representation of my Dad’s job,” Jessica Winborn said.

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