Officers study physics of motorcycle crashes

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Law enforcers from several jurisdictions pushed motorcycles off the back of a moving truck Thursday and watched them crash on the road, all in the name of improving safety.

For the past week, two instructors from the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety have been teaching nearly two dozen officers from departments across the state the physics of motorcycle crashes, how to conduct an analysis of an accident scene and how to reconstruct the accident.

"We're trying to figure out how it occurred," said Michael Anthony Ditallo, one of the instructors invited to Utah by the Unified Police Department. "We're trying to learn the vehicles."

It's information the officers will use to investigate real accidents in their own cities. Ditallo added that a better understanding of how accidents happen can help law enforcers teach prevention and educate traffic engineers who design and monitor roads.

On Thursday, class was held in back of Rocky Mountain Raceway where officer Jason Smith drove his motorcycle at varying speeds through a set of cones and laid down skid marks by alternating between using both brakes, the rear brake, the front brake, and turning the ABS on and off.

Each law enforcer at the drill had a specific assignment. Some watched the rear tire only, some the front tire, others measured speed while some measured the length of each skid mark, both front and back tires.

"An accident is really a puzzle piece," Ditallo said. "You're trying to put all those puzzle pieces together. How did they brake? How fast were they going? What was the distance from braking until they stopped?"

During one test run, Ditallo instructed the students, "Look at the marks, dark then light, dark then light. It was brake release, brake release."

In another test, the pavement was soaked with water. Driving at just 30 mph and using only his rear brakes with no ABS, Smith's bike immediately turned sideways and would have been laid down if not for the protective arms attached on each side of the motorcycle to prevent it from tipping over.

"There's no way I could have saved that," he told other officers when his bike finally came to a stop. The highlight of the tests came when four motorcycles were loaded onto the back of a box truck, and during four separate test runs, pushed off the back as the truck moved through the coned test area. Officers immediately made note of skid marks made from the metal against the pavement and measured friction of the road and speed.

As motorcycle technology continues to evolve, so should the training, Ditallo said. He noted, however, that even though computers and advances in technology have brought accident reconstruction a long way in the past decade, there may come a day when much of the accident data will be recorded by the wrecked motorcycle itself.

Northwestern University teaches several classes on accident reconstruction, Ditallo said. They also have given classes all over the world and recreated accident scenes for several types of vehicles including passenger cars and big rig trucks.


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