The October 2, 2013 church bus accident on Interstate 40 near Dandridge, Jefferson County, Tennessee that left eight dead and fourteen people injured will result in lots of people on the ground investigating what happened. The Tennessee Highway Patrol will be present, as well representatives of the liability insurance companies for the church bus and the tractor-trailer company. Representatives of the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) will not be present because of the government shutdown.
What data are the professional investigators looking for and what do they hope to accomplish by their efforts? First, they want to document the precise location of all physical evidence – the vehicles, tire marks, gouge marks, damage to medians and wire median barrier, protective devices, etc. All of this data will assist experts in determining the events leading to the crash and fire, and provide information about speed of the vehicles involved.
The investigators will attempt to download the "black box" information for each vehicle. Most vehicles these days have "electronic control modules" that capture certain data for a number of seconds before an event (and other data as well). Some older vehicles do not have ECMs, and some fail to work as contemplated, but an effort will be made to get the data if an ECM is available.
Extensive photographs will be taken and independent eyewitnesses will be interviewed.
According to the media, a front tire on the bus is thought to have been the initial cause of the incident. The tire will be located and, assuming it was not destroyed in the incident, it will be preserved for an evaluation by a tire expert. Engineers with a background in tire analysis can determine the mode of failure of the tire, which will give an indication of whether the tire was defective or unreasonably dangerous when sold (thus potentially subjecting the tire manufacturer to potential liability) and whether the tire was subject to excessive wear or was not appropriately maintained (which can subject the church and any company that did tire or general bus maintenance work to potential liability). Other tires on the bus also need to be examined and preserved unless they were burned in the fire.
Each bus passenger able to give a statement will be interviewed, as will each other person who was involved in the accident.
Then, the odds are that all of the data will be used to reconstruct the incident on a computer. There are several computer programs which allow the input of data and then will mathematically and graphically re-create what happened. The data can be modified to show what would have happened if the various people involved had, for example, hit the brakes, eased off on the gas pedal, increased speed, etc. All of this will take several months.
Let me hasten to add that by referencing the potential liability of tire manufacturers, the church, etc. I do not intend to suggest that I have any idea what happened. I have read what is reported in the press. That leads me (and the investigators) to ask questions about what factors might have come together to create this tragedy, which in turn leads to an examination of the potential responsibility of the various actors. Much, much work will be necessary to get to the bottom of who bears responsibility for this gruesome wreck.
You can read more about this tragic bus accident by clicking the link.