Cars crash, metal crunches and tears -- but it's all in the name of police training in Lake County

As dozens of suburban police officers watched, a bright-yellow Chevrolet Cobalt plowed into a motorcycle Thursday afternoon in Grayslake.

The impact, estimated at 40 mph, propelled the motorcycle forward some 20 feet. The collision left debris from both the car and the motorcycle all over the roadway and on a nearby patch of grass.

Fortunately, the accident was no accident at all. It was part of a law-enforcement training exercise set up by the Major Crash Assistance Team of Lake County.

Two years in the making, the program was designed to give police officers from throughout the suburbs opportunities to investigate crashes just minutes after they occurred.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said Lincolnshire police investigator Adam Hyde, an MCAT member who helped organize the seminar.

The crashes were staged at the former Lake County Fairgrounds in Grayslake. Four crashes were planned, each depicting a different scenario.

In the car-vs.-motorcycle crash, a mannequin was placed on the motorcycle's seat to impersonate a human rider. The man behind the wheel of the Cobalt was Rusty Haight, a trained crash-test driver from California who walked away without a scratch.

A later scenario had a passenger car ram the side of a second vehicle.

"We're going to simulate scenarios that these guys would see in the field and give them an opportunity to apply what they know," Haight said before the exercise began.

The exercise was the first of its kind for the Major Crash Assistance Team, which consists of police officers who are experts in crash investigation. It typically helps local police investigate car accidents that result in life-threatening injuries or deaths or those that require unusual investigative techniques.

The program wasn't limited to MCAT members. Accident investigators from Cook, McHenry and DuPage counties also participated. So did Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim and several of the prosecutors who specialize in traffic cases.

Although they're important cases, prosecutors rarely watch accident investigations in progress, Nerheim said.

"It gives them a better understanding of what they're trying to relay to the jury and the judge," Nerheim said of Thursday's training. "It will make us more effective in court."

The Cobalt-vs.-motorcycle crash was the first wreck of the afternoon. Cameras on both vehicles and on nearby tripods filmed the metal-crunching action.

After a few minutes, the gathered investigators were allowed to approach and examine the scene. Working alone or in small groups, they made notes, shot their own photos and pointed out potentially important evidence.

McHenry County sheriff's deputy Sandra Rogers noted one of the mannequin's shoes was missing and looked for it.

"Oh, it's way up there," she said. "There's the shoe."

Arlington Heights police officer Alexandra K. Nelson said she'll gain practical experience from the exercise.

By witnessing the accidents and quickly investigating, "it gives us a better idea of what our data is describing," Nelson said.

The two-day training concludes Friday with classroom work at the College of Lake County in Grayslake.

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  Lindenhurst Police Officer Steven Flasch shoots pictures Thursday at the scene of a mock accident during the Major Crash Assistance Team of Lake County's training exercise at the old Lake County Fairgrounds. Four crashes were staged and teams investigated the scene of each crash. Steve Lundy/
  Sean Haight of Collision Safety Institute shoots pictures at the scene of a mock accident Thursday at the old Lake County Fairgrounds in Grayslake. It was part of the Major Crash Assistance Team of Lake County's training exercise, where teams investigated four crashes. Steve Lundy/
  Investigators inspect the scene of a mock accident during the Major Crash Assistance Team of Lake County's training exercise at the old Lake County Fairgrounds on Thursday. Four crashes were set up and teams investigated the scene of each crash. Steve Lundy/
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