An inside look at traffic safety

Road rage, cell phones, accident reconstruction

MARQUETTE — While driving is a routine part of most people’s day-to-day lives, traffic safety can quickly become a matter of life and death.

How police process accidents, monitor roads and keep drivers safe were topics discussed at this week’s Citizen’s Academy through the Michigan State Police Negaunee Post. The eight-week program offers citizens a look into the operations and mission of the law enforcement agency, while giving them a chance to ask questions and get to know personnel.

Trooper Rex Lewis, an accident investigator and evidence technician, talked to students about do’s and don’ts of traffic accidents, the police investigation process, the tools of the trade and anecdotes from the road.

Any accidents that cause personal injury or property damage greater than $1,000 must be reported, Lewis said. Be sure to get the other person’s name, address, phone number, vehicle registration plate and insurance policy number.

Trooper Stacey Rasanen, who coordinates the academy, said police don’t typically investigate parking lot incidents unless it involves a hit-and-run or injury.

“We don’t work for the insurance company,” Rasanen said.

Students asked about whether road rage is an issue troopers encounter.

Lewis said it’s common for a driver to “mean mug” someone else on the road, but others can take it too far.

“We’re all out there driving and there’s somebody that ultimately does something that kind of irritates you, and you kind of might be along side them, and let’em know,” Lewis said. “Well other people take that to an extreme, and words are exchanged and fingers are flying and then, Lord — (it’s) just dumb. We’re out there driving, our vehicles weigh 3,000 to 4,000 pounds, most vehicles anyway, and you’re driving 60 mph … and dumb stuff happens.”

Another question concerned cell phone use.

Lewis said no laws are necessarily forthcoming on that issue, but that using a phone can constitute careless or reckless driving in the case of an accident. Obviously, he added, texting while driving is illegal and has led to serious accidents and fatalities.

When an accident does cause damage or injury, it’s his job to measure the scene and determine the cause and circumstances of the crash. Accident investigators use skid marks, gouges in the road, positions of the vehicles, yaw marks — which are created when the tire is sliding and rotating at the same time — and information from “black boxes” in newer cars, which record when brakes were applied, for how long, and other information relevant to the investigation.

Lewis said he’s usually called to the scene of an accident when he is not working.

“My office is my patrol car. I keep all this gear in my bag back here, (and) I just jump in the car,” Lewis said. “I don’t normally wear my uniform, I’ll just throw fatigues on, it allows me to get a little dirtier because sometimes I’m crawling around and these scenes are messy. There’s usually fluids from the damaged vehicles, (and) tragically, there’s blood and all kinds of gore that’s involved.”

Some scenes extend for 300 feet, others as long as 1,000 feet, he said.

Using a camera, measuring tape and plenty of math, Lewis can determine things like the speed and direction of the vehicles, the point of collision and more.

For fatal accidents, he said, troopers call on a reconstruction specialist, who brings a wealth of knowledge and more efficient tools, like photogrammetry, which uses photographs to map distances with greater speed and accuracy.

Of course, fatalities bring with them additional challenges for law enforcement.

“It’s one of the worst things as a police officer to go tell somebody, ‘Hey, sorry to inform you but your loved one is deceased,'” Lewis said, shuddering as he recalled a recent experience.

But that’s part of the job, which, he said, he also loves.

“I love my job, I love going out and stopping cars. I maybe give 5-10 percent of the people I stop tickets, and I write those that need a ticket, you know, they’re out there flying,” Lewis said. “If your speed is fairly reasonable, I’m not (going to) write you a ticket.”

In response to a question regarding the speed limit increase affecting M-28, Lewis said police probably won’t be so lenient as they have in the past.

Students also asked about the Brickyard Road area of U.S.-41, where a higher rate of traffic issues tend to occur.

Rasanen said she serves on the Marquette County Road Commission committee that studies that corridor and the plan is — when funding allows — to extend the “Michigan left” turn lanes that occur throughout Marquette Township along U.S.-41 further toward Negaunee.

For other issues, Lewis said, “I think eventually what you’re (going to) see is more roundabouts. Roundabouts work. They slow people down and they do save lives.”

William Wilson, of Negaunee, has been attending the academy and said it’s a positive program.

“I really appreciate what they’re doing here, (I’m) learning an awful lot. Nice to get their side of it,” Wilson said.

Mary Wardell can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248. Her email address is mwardell@miningjournal.net.