Laying groundwork to reconstruct traffic accidents

Course covers forensic engineering basics and career exploration

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New York State Police and Marty Gordon

Forensic engineers, including Marty Gordon, are able to make sense of twisted metal and broken glass, results of road mishaps, fender-benders or even fatalities, using science and sense. His course in traffic-accident reconstruction is a way to show students how they can apply the theories of physics and engineering to real-world practice.

Your car knows when you speed—and it gives up the information willingly.

Marty Gordon shared that information with his students during a special-topics course about traffic-accident reconstruction and forensic engineering. The insight was as much about driving safety as it was about understanding the tools, like a vehicle’s “black box” that accident investigators use to reconstruct crashes. 

While forensic engineering is not a specific degree program, understanding the fundamentals through a class like this shows students how they can apply theories to real-world practice and how they can use those skills to become investigators.

“Traffic-accident reconstruction is based on the laws of physics. You have to think about not only what makes sense but how you communicate that to a jury,” says Gordon, a board-certified forensic engineer and professor of manufacturing and mechanical engineering technology. “It’s an exercise in how you are going to stand behind your assumptions, which we as engineers are always being asked to do. This course helps students learn how to defend the assumptions they make.” 

Students tested those assumptions during a New York State Police training demonstration of a train going 30 miles per hour colliding with a stalled vehicle. The car stuck to the front of the train and traveled a quarter mile down the track. 

“A train running into a car is analogous to your car running over a pop can,” he says. 

Gordon is only one of approximately 400 certified professionals practicing in the U.S.

“RIT is my full-time gig, but this allows me to bring some pretty interesting stories to the classes I teach,” says Gordon, whose specialty in forensic engineering is in product-liability machinery-related accidents as well as traffic-accident reconstruction. 

Skid-to-stop equations, conservation of energy and friction-force calculations are all concepts from physics and engineering technology that the students saw in action, student Alex Oliveira says, but the training crash was the highlight. 

“A class that has to do with cars and crashes sounded very interesting. It made this class almost irresistible,” says the mechanical engineering technology major from Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “Seeing the train crash into the car just a few yards away was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I don’t think I will ever forget.”

Today’s vehicles have “black boxes,” or electronic data recording equipment, similar to those found in airplanes, consisting, in part, of the airbag control module, engine control unit and rollover sensor. When triggered by a sudden motion, devices record speed, whether restraints deploy, when a driver brakes, even where the seat was positioned—all accident indicators used by investigators. 

“I tell the students there are things that might be disturbing. When we went to a salvage yard we saw quite a few vehicles that were marked as a biohazard,” he says. “You couldn’t help but think that something really bad happened in there. As engineers we are not going to be the first responders, but we will be investigating the data that someone else collected and we’ll be able to evaluate that data.”

Another point Gordon made to the texting-generation of students in his class was that drivers going 60 miles-per-hour cover 88 feet per second. 

“A lot can happen in one second. You look down at your phone. That’s 88 feet you just traveled without looking,” he says. “I think if nothing else, after taking this course, the students will be more careful drivers.”