'If Someone's Died, or it's Apparent Someone will Die, They Call Us'

We spoke to a police officer whose job is investigating fatal crash sites to find out who's responsible.

by Julian Morgans
06 February 2015, 1:33am

The MCIU investigating a fatal accident. Images via Victoria Police

Last year 1,153 people died on Australia's roads. Broken down that's about 22 people each week, which is why most state police have a unit to investigate fatal accidents. In Victoria the Major Collision Investigation Unit (MCIU) studies accidents where someone died and it was found there was an element of criminality, such as intoxicated or culpable driving. Basically, the MCIU are the ones who mop up after worst-case scenarios and figure out who's responsible. We were curious about how it feels to do such a job, so we spoke to the head of the unit, Sgt Brad McArthur.

VICE: Hi Brad. Can you tell me the basics of the unit?
Sgt Brad McArthur: I've been working here about 10 years. All up we've got about 50 people and last year we went to 143 crashes around the state. Of that we investigated 65. I think the road toll last year was 249, from memory.

Can you tell me about accidents? What's the part of the crash that kills people?
Speed is the part which kills people. If you're crossing the road and you get hit, anything above 40 kilometres an hour and it's most likely you'll die. In a car, if you drive through a give way sign and get t-boned, anything about 30 kilometres an hour is likely to be fatal unless you've got side air bags. Even anything above 60 can be fatal in a frontal collision.

"Car accidents have a certain smell. There's oil and petrol and transmission fluid and brake fluid and it all has a certain smell."

So after the crash I imagine the local police arrive. Can you run me through how you get involved?
Well you're right, first the local police make some assessments. If someone's died or it's apparent someone will die, they'll call us. When we arrive we treat it as you would a crime scene. You're looking at the tyre marks and the debris about the scene, certain impact marks, and trying to put together what happened. It's the investigation that distracts you from the gore.

I can imagine that must be the hard part. How do you deal with the gore?
A lot of people ask me that. I think the hardest part is dealing with the families of the deceased. Deaths in car crashes are totally unexpected. It's not like someone's been sick for a long period of time, it's like someone goes off in the morning, and then the family gets a knock on the door and suddenly their child is dead. It takes people years to get over that initial moment, and they never really do.

If you were training me, what advice would you offer on approaching that conversation?
You've got to read your audience a bit. Through body language we try to project the news before we need to say anything. For example, two policemen knocking on the door make most people think oh no, what's wrong? Then if you take your hat off and say do you mind if we come in? Most people realise it's bad news and they sort of prepare themselves before you say it. Having said that though, no one's really prepared for that kind of news.

Are there any cases that particularly stay with you?
Yeah look, I've stopped counting the amount of crashes I've seen. But one that stands out happened near my house. I got a phone call telling me there were a few 16 year-olds involved and it looked like one had passed away. Now, I had a 16 year-old daughter out socialising that night so I went and looked in her room. I just had to check. Thankfully I saw her in bed, sound asleep.

It's often struck me that when you roll up to a scene and there's a few bodies in the car, it's just so quiet. That can get to you.

What has this job taught you about mortality?
This might sound flippant but when your number is up, your number is up. I used to think about that when I was on-call. I'd think of the people walking around, having a good time at a party and how they'll be dead the next morning. You just never know when it's going to be your number.

That's sounds fatalistic. Do you believe in fate?
No not particularly. You make your own luck and if you act appropriately you'll survive.

Is there some overarching pattern to crashes? Something you always see?
The scenes we go to, there's always a particular smell. There's oil and petrol and transmission fluid and brake fluid and it all has a certain smell. Then there's the silence. It's usually hours after the event so all that frantic activity of trying to save people is over. It's often struck me that when you roll up to a scene and there's a few bodies in the car, it's just so quiet. That can get to you.

Finally, has this job affected how you drive?
Yeah. I think a lot of people would accuse me of being a boring old man when I drive. Driving is basically the most dangerous thing most people do, so I'm very aware of that responsibility.

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