It’s raining outside the Williston barracks of the Vermont State Police, where Trooper Owen Ballinger examines the wreckage of a 2012 Nissan Versa. On July 24, Byung Lee of Burlington allegedly drove this car down Pine Street, careening off numerous vehicles before police stopped and arrested him.
To an untrained eye, the totaled Nissan is scrap metal for a junkyard crusher. But to Ballinger, every dent, scratch and tire gouge is a puzzle piece he can use, along with physical evidence gathered from the road, to re-create exactly what happened.
Ballinger, 35, has been a trooper since 1999. In 2008, the Newport native became part of the VSP’s new crash reconstruction team. Since then, he’s received advanced training in the field and now teaches crash-scene investigation to all police cadets. Not all collisions require a reconstruction team, but any police department in Vermont can request one, free of charge, especially in investigations involving injuries or fatalities.
It’s been a hectic year for Ballinger. As of July 23, 42 crashes on Vermont highways, have claimed 47 lives — nearly twice as many deaths as in all of 2011. Ballinger worked many of them, including the May 7 triple fatality on I-89 in Bolton. He also worked the Moretown wreck on Route 100B last December, in which a grandmother and her two grandchildren were killed when their van struck a propane truck.
Though crash reconstruction utilizes sophisticated equipment and complex math, part of Ballinger’s job is to explain what happened in simple terms that any jury can understand.
“There’s no need to baffle people with complicated formulas,” he says. “If the primary cause of the collision was that your van was on the wrong side of the road and you collided with a gas truck, you were wrong.”
SEVEN DAYS: How do you begin your investigations?
OWEN BALLINGER: We tend to work the scene backward. The known part of the crash is where everything has come to rest. Our job is to go back to where it all began. Say we have a two-car crash. There may be skid marks and gouges that lead to where these vehicles came to rest. We mark the locations of those skid marks and gouges so we can go back and measure them. From those measurements, we can find the area of impact where those vehicles collided.
SD: Has your technology changed much?
OB: Definitely. We used to use regular tape measures. But in 2008, the state police acquired four “total stations” that use lasers to take measurements. Instead of going to the scene with a tape measure and a lumber crayon, two of us can measure a scene in a couple of hours and gather over 100 measurement points, whereas [the old method] took us three times as long. The data are stored in a handheld computer and downloaded into our laptops. Our new software can use those measurements to make 3-D diagrams. We can also make animation [of the crash] for court testimony.
SD: Do you use outside experts?
OB: Sometimes we’ll use local mechanics and tow-truck operators. Oftentimes you’ll hear people say, “I blew a tire. That’s why I went off the road.” But if you have a four-wheel skid, obviously all the tires were inflated. An underinflated or blown tire isn’t going to leave a skid mark.
SD: I hear all new vehicles have data recorders similar to an airplane’s black box.
OB: That’s the airbag control module. It’s a module inside the vehicle that’s constantly retrieving input from various sensors: wheel-speed sensors, brake sensors ... When a certain threshold is met, the module gives the command to deploy the airbags. But a secondary function of that module is to record the information it was receiving at the time it gave the command to deploy.
SD: Are you sometimes unable to figure out what happened?
OB: The technology has reached the point where we can pretty much determine what happened. Oftentimes what we can’t determine is why.
SD: You don’t call crashes “accidents.” Why?
OB: People used to say, “Oh, these things happen. It was just an accident.” Really, these aren’t accidents. What we’re finding more and more is that these collisions or crashes were created by an operator’s degree of negligence.
SD: What’s the toughest part of your job?
OB: Obviously, the crashes that involve children are the most difficult.
SD: What’s the best part?
OB: It’s overwhelming when you first begin this career, because you’ve received the training, yet you show up on the scene and there are people everywhere; there’s fluid on the road; there are mashed-up cars, ambulances, fire trucks, and the traffic is crazy. And everyone is looking to you to figure out what happened. So it’s nice when we can arrive on the scene and assist our fellow police officers and provide them with a quality report that assists in their investigation.