Far beyond taking pretty pictures or video, an elite team of suburban cops is using drones for faster and more efficient investigations of major traffic accidents.
Investigators use two drones to conduct measurements and other elements of accident reconstruction. The images captured from above, instead of strictly on the ground, not only help investigators work more quickly at crash scenes but also provide what authorities believe is better information to determine what happened.
In turn, drivers are benefiting from roads being reopened earlier after serious crashes because the investigators work faster with a drone. Investigations also can continue with a drone while traffic moves through an area.
"This whole idea of it being more efficient for the officer and being more efficient for the public is what we're after," said Steven Husak, commander of the Lake County Major Crash Assistance Team and Lake Zurich's police chief.
The team is believed to be first in the state and one of the few accident reconstruction squads in the country using drone technology, which was approved in December.
Relaxed Federal Aviation Administration licensing regulations enacted in August opened the door to law enforcement drone pilots, said Stan Taylor of the Northwestern University Center for Public Safety. He consulted with Lake County on the technology and expects drone use for crash investigations to start spreading across the nation.
How it works
Images captured from a $2,500 drone flying no more than 100 feet above the crash site are fed into a software program that stitches together hundreds of pictures for a computer model. Working off the model, investigators take measurements to determine speed and other crash elements, as well as getting a driver's view before a wreck and seeing the scene in 3-D animation.
The improved evidence collection and investigations will help in trying to determine driver fault -- a factor used in criminal cases and lawsuits, Husak said. Investigators still examine crash scenes on the ground as the drone works from the sky.
Taylor and Iain Lopata, also of Northwestern, are teaching courses for police officers and others in law enforcement to become qualified for the aerial crash investigations. At least 15 Lake County investigators are licensed.
Lopata said the new technology has been especially adept at showing fluid trails on a roadway -- in day or night -- that may be from a car's radiator or broken brake line. He said the trails are not always easy to locate from the ground.
"Those fluid trails allow the reconstructionists to get a very clear picture of exactly where the point of first impact was between the vehicles, which often gives the critical clues as to who might have been at fault," Lopata said.
Route 60 fatality
Thirty-six Lake County police departments contribute personnel to the major crash investigation team. One of the investigators, Libertyville police Detective Belinda Steckenrider, said on-site work that used to take up to five hours is down to three hours or less with a drone.
In one recent case, the drone was used the evening of March 30, when the squad investigated a crash involving a 13-year-old Mundelein boy who died after a car hit him as he tried to cross busy Route 60 at Milwaukee Avenue in Vernon Hills. The team collected the evidence it needed in about 2½ hours.
As part of the ongoing investigation, Steckenrider said she's been able to examine images of the Milwaukee-Route 60 intersection that she would not have had without the drone.
"The aerial pictures are phenomenal, to be able to look at the entire scene compared to somebody standing at eye level taking pictures," she said.
Just before the roughly 11-year-old Lake County team received authorization for its program, Massachusetts State Police unveiled its first crash reconstruction drone in December, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. Authorities billed it as one of the first accident reconstruction drones in the nation.
Illinois law addresses privacy issues raised by police drone use for crime- and crash-scene photography.
The American Civil Liberties Union's Illinois branch provided input for the state's Freedom From Drone Surveillance Act. In part, it says police drones must stay in a geographically confined area while making every reasonable attempt to get images only from a crime or accident site.
"There is also a requirement that the law enforcement secure a warrant or obtain lawful consent before using the drone for these purposes on private property," said Khadine Bennett, ACLU advocacy and governmental affairs director. "As long as those parameters are followed, we don't oppose the use."
Husak said the Lake County Major Crash Assistance Team always has tried to be on the cutting edge of technology, such as when it shifted from using a tape measure, wheel and chalk marks to digital photography to map accident scenes. He said the drones, which they began testing in 2015, are another step in the technological progression.
Potential problems for the drones include severe wind, trees and extreme temperatures. But on the whole, they've been reliable for what's become a great public benefit, Northwestern's Taylor said.
"A lot of times we can't even call in tow trucks and stuff to remove the vehicles until we have done a certain amount of the investigation recording the evidence," he said. "So, if we can speed that process up significantly, even a really complicated (crash) is still going to be a shorter end-to-end time."
Drones: ACLU helps ensure people's privacy