A silver Ford traveling 40 mph slammed into a bicyclist in a Golden Valley parking lot, sending the rider flying 75 feet and leaving him dead.
Thankfully, it was only a test.
The State Patrol on Thursday staged the crash, conducted with a mannequin on a bicycle, and sent a drone skyward to capture images of the violent collision. The exercise was intended to demonstrate how the agency is expanding its use of technology to investigate fatal crashes and tell the stories of victims who can’t tell their own.
“Families want answers,” said State Patrol Lt. Robert Zak. “They want to know what happened to their loved ones.”
The patrol got its first drone in November 2020, but only recently began regularly taking the small, remote-controlled aircraft to fatal crash scenes. Drones outfitted with high-definition cameras can capture scores of 3D photos in a matter of minutes, drastically cutting down the time investigators previously spent on-site gathering information and trying to determine what happened and why.
An investigation conducted with old technology — using cameras that look like survey equipment road construction crews use — could take three to four hours or longer. Often, that meant troopers standing on freeways as traffic flowed by, or shutting down roads completely.
“We can get the road open faster — that is one of our goals,” said Col. Matt Langer with the State Patrol. “That helps the motorists traveling from A to B, and helps troopers stay out of harm’s way.”
But the biggest advantage is that drone technology provides “superior evidence,” Langer said. Drone footage can show everything from weather conditions to the type of road or intersection where a crash happened. That is critical to completing accurate reports, which often stand as as victims’ voices.
Crash reports are often used to determine whether criminal charges should be filed, the patrol said.
In Thursday’s mock crash, a drone flying 150 feet over the scene captured 57 photographs in two minutes. The images were then fed into a computer program that allowed investigators to determine the vehicle’s speed, distance of skid marks and the impact point and to create diagrams to give a complete picture. The program showed that in Thursday’s simulation, the bike flew 94 feet after impact and the “victim” flew 75 feet after being struck.
“It’s a game changer,” said Sgt. Kelvin Hammes. “We are more accurate and deliver a much better product.”