EAGLE ROCK, Missouri - Despite technological advances in taking and storing digital images, an NBC Action News investigation found there are many cases when state law enforcement agencies do not collect photographic evidence at serious vehicle crash scenes.
Based on numerous interviews with state highway patrols in the region, there are a number of safety, financial and time-related reasons why photos are not taken, even in crashes with serious injuries or fatalities. Department polices and resources also vary widely from state to state.
The lack of photographic evidence can be frustrating for people involved in crashes as they deal with insurance settlements and personal injury civil cases.
Life-threatening wreck, no photo evidence
On Labor Day morning of 2009, Frank Edwards and his wife, Cindy, hit the road on their motorcycles. They were heading back to the Kansas City area after a holiday weekend journey to Eureka Springs, Ark.
As they traveled on Highway 86 near Eagle Rock, Mo., the fog grew thick and began to affect visibility. Cindy radioed to her husband that they should pull off the road and wait for the fog to lift.
As she turned into a convenience store, Cindy waited for Frank to pull up alongside her. Instead, she heard a sickening collision.
“I saw him lying in the middle of the road and just started screaming,” Cindy said. “I was just praying that he was still alive.”
A 21-year-old driver had slammed his car into Frank as he began a left turn into the parking lot. The driver lost control after the impact and the car careened into a ditch. Frank’s bike flew back down the road and skidded into a truck.
Frank landed in the middle of the highway, the bones in his leg and arm shattered from the collision.
First responders arrived and rushed him away in an ambulance. He was later airlifted to a Springfield hospital.
“I woke up in intensive care two days later and said, ‘Where am I?’ Nobody could believe I was alive,” Frank said.
Accident report leaves questions
The Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP) trooper who responded to the scene noted heavy fog in the accident report. Under the contributing circumstances section, he marked the 21-year-old driver for going “too fast for conditions.” He checked Frank for “failure to yield.”
The narrative summary had a brief statement from the Edwardses, the other driver and Victor Hammond, who was driving his truck when the motorcycle skidded into his front bumper and headlight.
“I thought it killed him,” Hammond told NBC Action News. “The car was speeding and didn’t have its lights on. Frank and his wife weren’t doing a damn thing wrong.”
But Hammond’s witness statement in the report did not mention any of that. There was also no witness statement from Cindy or even a mention that she was at the scene.
The witness statement attributed to Frank read, “I was just riding along.” Frank said he has no recollection of speaking with the trooper at the scene.
However, the thing that angered the veteran motorcyclist the most was there were no photos taken by the trooper at the scene.
“They almost had to strap me down to the hospital bed. I was ticked,” Frank said. “I assumed the first thing anyone did at the scene of a wreck is take pictures. I was relying on the experts to tell me what happened and I was told nothing.”
The only photos Frank ever saw are those taken by a friend who returned to the location several days later. The friend snapped photos of the damaged car, still sitting in the ditch, along with pictures of the motorcycle after it had been towed to a garage.
What is the policy for taking photos at crash scenes?
The policy states that photographs should be taken “when appropriate.” The only guarantee photos will be taken is when more detailed investigations are ordered.
For instance, a technical accident investigation or reconstruction occurs when it appears likely felony charges will result from the crash, like a DWI arrest.
In some circumstances, the Major Crash Investigation Unit is called to the scene. That usually happens when a school bus, patrol vehicle or commercial vehicle is involved, or when there are more than three fatalities.
Otherwise, much of the discretion is left up to the trooper who responds to the crash scene.
“The system in place could not handle taking photos at every crash. In an ideal world, it would be great. But in reality, it’s not possible,” said Lieutenant John Hotz, assistant director of the Public Information and Education Division at MSHP headquarters in Jefferson City.
Hotz cited a number of reasons why photos might not be taken at wrecks with serious injuries or a fatality. Because of large coverage responsibilities in rural areas, troopers may have to respond to other crash scenes. Inclement weather also could make it dangerous to take photos on high-speed roadways.
Until recently, troopers were not even equipped