The black sports car was unrecognizable lying there in the grassy lot of a garage just north of Forsyth.
It had been a little more than three weeks since the crash on Ga. 42, about 2.5 miles south of town. Three teenagers were hurt and one, a passenger, was killed Dec. 4 when the Chevrolet Camaro left the road and struck some trees.
Last year in Georgia, there were 1,432 traffic fatalities, the most in the state since 2007. In Middle Georgia, Jones and Monroe counties saw double the number of deaths on roadways in 2016 than they did in 2015.
After the recent Monroe County fatality, sheriff’s deputies arrived at Buice’s Garage just north of Forsyth, armed with a warrant.
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There, two Georgia State Patrol troopers with the Specialized Collision Reconstruction Team were waiting with cables and a laptop. The lawmen were preparing to extract information about the crash from the Camaro’s air bag control module, which monitors vehicle sensors.
“The more information we have about the crash, the more comprehensive decision we can make about what did or did not happen,” trooper Jonathan Driskell said.
The device, built into all American-made and most foreign-made cars, “tells the traction control when to activate, air bags when to deploy,” Driskell said. It tells “all the parameters that went into that decision to deploy the air bags or traction control.”
The manufacturer uses the device to analyze crash information, but law enforcement agencies can get it too with a warrant.
“It’s just amazing what you can get off of those things,” Sgt. Lawson Bittick said. “It has a lot of information. Whether the driver is wearing a seat belt, the passenger was wearing a seat belt, speeds, air bag deployment and when that was done.”
In one case, Bittick said he was able to tell the top speed that a semi-truck had traveled.
The systems used to download the data from cars costs thousands of dollars, so local agencies often rely on the collision reconstruction team to help.
After hooking up cables to a laptop and running cords from the Camaro to a patrol car, it was just a matter of minutes before the officers got what they’d come for.
That information will be used along with physical evidence from the road to determine what happened and whether anyone will face charges.
“We just try to go in and tell the story for people that can’t tell the story themselves,” Driskell said. “They may be seriously injured, in a coma or even ... deceased. They can’t tell their story. And we come in and we’re able to piece together the pieces of the puzzle.”
The reconstruction team relies on local agencies for help when it comes to determining, for example, if a distracted driver was using a cellphone, trooper Brandon Stone said.
“There are systems that can download the content of someone’s phone to see if they were texting or using an application around the time of the crash,” he said. “Everything on your phone deleted that you think may be deleted, it will download it all and it will dump onto your computer and you can go through it.”
Cellebrite, a Japanese company that specializes in mobile forensics, makes the system that the Monroe County Sheriff’s Office uses.
The system, estimated to cost about $10,000, was given to the sheriff’s office by the federal government after its deputies attended training in Mississippi about a decade ago, Bittick said. It was upgraded a couple of years ago to a portable laptop-like model.
Though none of Monroe County’s 14 traffic fatalities last year were attributed to distraction by a cellphone, Bittick said the Cellebrite system is more often used for homicide and armed robbery investigations. Drugs and alcohol were more common factors in the county’s traffic fatalities last year.
If a person is killed in a crash, Bittick said a warrant isn’t required to access his or her phone.
“A person that’s deceased doesn’t really have a right to privacy,” Bittick said. “There’s no expectation. They’re not going to be charged with a criminal act.”
A search warrant is needed to take the phone belonging to a living person involved in a fatal crash.
“There is a limitation of what you can subpoena for depending on the cellphone provider,” Bittick said. “Some cellphone providers can give you information up to 30 days before. Some can only provide texting information from the five day period before you request it.”
Within one to five hours after the phone is connected with the Cellebrite system, investigators are able to see all of its contents splayed out onto pages and divided into sections including pictures, calls, texts, incoming calls, outgoing calls and apps. Bittick said he’s seen as few as five pages and as many as 500 pages of information extracted from a cellphone.
Every traffic fatality is “a little bit different,” Bittick said. Whether a Cellebrite system or an air bag control module is needed depends on the investigation.
“The first part of the investigation is to figure out what happened in the wreck with the vehicle,” Bittick said. “The second part is where they were, what they were doing, like a 24-hour day loop of how your day went before the wreck occurred.”
There are five key elements at play in crash reconstruction: the environment, the vehicles, the people, the roadway and the science of physics.
Driskell, who has been on the reconstruction team for two years, says he’s always liked math.
“It was one thing that I excelled at in school,” Driskell said. “Life led me to this job.”
Driskell worked many crashes as an officer at several midstate law enforcement agencies, including the Lamar County Sheriff’s Office. Before that, he sold insurance for Geico.
The science of crashes and the patterns he witnessed interested him.
Since joining the team, Driskell said he insists upon driving when he is with his wife and family. If his wife is behind the wheel, Driskell admittedly tries to drive from the passenger seat.
Sometimes, he avoids entire stretches of road because of the carnage he’s witnessed.
“It gets hard seeing all the death all the time,” he said. “That’s all we’re working is fatal crashes and serious injuries. There’s always somebody hurt or a family grieving. That gets hard, but we attack it from a team standpoint. ... We’re giving justice to people who need it, closure to families who may not be otherwise getting closure.”