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April 23, 2014

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Controlled crashes a ‘hands-on lab’ for investigators

Speedway event lets officials witness car collisions first-hand

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Justin M. Bowen

A controlled high-impact collision of a car into a tractor-trailer is shown Monday during the annual Crash Conference hosted by the North Las Vegas Police Department Traffic Division at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Crash Conference

A controlled high-impact collision of a car into a tractor-trailer is shown Monday during the annual Crash Conference hosted by the North Las Vegas Police Department Traffic Division at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Launch slideshow »

Regular visitors to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway are used to seeing the occasional car crash. The speedway didn't host a race Monday morning, but there were still plenty of collisions.

The eighth annual Crash Conference, hosted by the North Las Vegas Police Department Traffic Division, gave attendees the opportunity to witness eight controlled crashes simulating real-life situations, such as one car being T-boned by another vehicle or careening into a tractor-trailer at 35 mph. About 235 people attended the conference, organizers said.

North Las Vegas police officer Jim Byrne, the lead investigator for the crash investigation team, said the conference helps police officers and others reconstruct crashes in a controlled setting.

“We have over 200 officers, reconstructionists, police officers and private sectors. Ninety-nine percent of these people will never see a crash in real life, so what they’re doing right now is using formulas to estimate speed and braking. They can come out here … and use their favorite formulas and see, ‘hey, are we validating them’ or ‘am I using this correctly, is the information sound?’” he said. “Basically, we’re giving them another tool for their toolbox.”

Byrne, who has been an officer for 13 years, said technology from around the world has been tested at the conference. On Monday, investigators tested the accuracy of "black boxes" installed in three donated 2009 Chryslers.

All of the crashed cars were driverless and either robo-steered or pushed into position by another car. Rusty Haight, director of the San Diego-based Collision Safety Institute, who also was a driver at the conference, said getting cars into their exact crash position is still stressful after 19 years of crashing cars for a living.

“We have so many things going on and trying to make everything go off the way it should,” Haight said.

He compared the live crashes to dissecting a frog in high school, calling the day's event a “hands-on lab” for traffic investigators.

After each crash demonstration, the crowd had the opportunity to check out the damage and measure the points of impact so it could be compared with computer data.

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