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All about momentum and vectors

Reid Williams

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles featuring ridealongs with officers from local law enforcement agencies.

SUMMIT COUNTY – It only takes a splitsecond for a car crash to end a life. It’s taken Colorado State Patrol Trooper Tim Ortiz 11 years and 250 hours of specialized training to understand what happens in that tragic window of time.

Ortiz is an accident investigator for the state patrol, reconstructing the sequence of destructive events that lead up to and follow highway crashes. His commander calls on him to investigate serious accidents – the ones that leave people critically injured, or worse – about 30 to 40 times a year. Each investigation is a detailed process using mathematics, laser measuring equipment, computers and eyes trained to observe telltale signs of what really happened on the road.

“All of us in the Patrol are required to be a Level-2 accident investigator,” Ortiz said. “It was something I liked, so I went further. And you definitely have to like it – it’s all about momentum and vectors.”

Troopers get Level-1 certification in the state patrol academy, 40 hours of training in filling out accident reports, taking measurements and calculating speeds from clues such as skid marks. The second level, another 96 hours of training, teaches troopers to plot scale diagrams of accident scenes, analyze tire treads and the basic physics of car crashes. Eighty hours of training later, Level-3 investigators are experts in the mathematics and formulas that describe impacts. At Level 4, another 40 hours, troopers join Ortiz’s ranks and can apply everything from previous levels to software programs. There only are about 20 level-four investigators in the state patrol.

Ortiz had two fatal accidents to investigate Tuesday, a workday that covered more than 300 miles of highway.

The day begins

9 a.m. – Ortiz arrives at the Silverthorne offices of the State Patrol’s Frisco Troop 6B from his home in Park County. He reviews reports corrected by supervisors and learns he must drive to Golden to make changes in the computer records system.

“You do have a lot of drive time, time to think,” said Ortiz as he drove east from Eisenhower Tunnel. “And right now, I’m thinking “Why are all these people passing me when I’m doing the speed limit?'”

10:40 a.m. – After an hour on the road, Ortiz arrives at the Golden regional CSP office, “where the major works.” He gets to work on the computer reports. The software purchased this year still has bugs to be worked out and Ortiz turns to his coworkers with computer questions. The software program contains records of victims, accident information, diagrams and witness statements. Accurate records are important because they often are used as evidence in court cases.

11 a.m. – “Now to the dirty work,” Ortiz said. He departs for Idaho Springs to examine a motorcycle that was involved in a fatal accident Sunday morning. Ortiz slips easily in conversation among thoughts of fishing, his wife and two sons and the stacks of laser and computerized tools stacked in the back of his patrol Jeep.

11:20 a.m. – A sergeant calls Ortiz back to Golden to pick up new equipment used for measuring and marking road points. “Sometimes, there aren’t enough hours in the day,” Ortiz said. He covers anywhere from 800 to 1,000 miles in a week.

12:30 p.m. – Ortiz heads back to Idaho Springs. He passes two fellow troopers assisting motorists with car trouble. “I worked this area before,” he said. “All you do is drive up and down assisting people with broken-down cars.”

He talks about the growing traffic congestion on I-70 and the job security that comes with it.

“The one thing about this job, I thought I’d find out what’s the best car to drive,” Ortiz said. “But there is no best car. It’s safer to stay home.”

1 p.m. – Ortiz examines the motorcycle at the junkyard of Idaho Springs’ Allied Towing. “It still smells like deer,” he said. Ortiz inspects the brake system, the throttle, the tires, lights and other mechanical systems. He tries to determine if damage happened before or after a collision. With the details recorded, he can return to the scene of the accident and corroborate or disprove the reported sequence of events.

“It’s not often I find a mechanical defect,” Ortiz said. “Sometimes, it’s bad tires. Mostly, it was the driver.”

1:34 p.m. – Ortiz stops in Downieville. At another junkyard, he inspects the axle assembly of a totaled semi. “Just want to check something from another case,” he said.

He continues his return to Summit County. Along the way, his wife calls on his cell phone. “Sometimes, she talks like I’m a million miles away,” he said. “I’ll be back tonight, though.”

2:15 p.m. – What remains of an SUV involved in a fatal rollover sits in the junkyard of Paul’s Towing in Silverthorne. The windows are smashed out, the frame is twisted and a tire is flat. The remnants of a road trip – cooler, books, shoes, gas station food and drinks – are strewn about the cabin. The inspection is similar to the one done on the motorcycle.

“There. You see that?” Ortiz said, pointing to the filament inside the headlight bulb. “They probably had their lights on. When they’re on, the filament heats up. When you crash, that filament deforms. If it’s straight, they didn’t have their lights on when they crashed.”

2:40 p.m. – Ortiz returns to the Silverthorne CSP offices to begin completing reports on the accidents. He works until it’s time to return to Park County, and gets home by 5 p.m.

“I hate to sound cold, but you see these things after a while and you get used to it,” Ortiz said. “I saw a decapitated woman once; that was probably the one I wish I hadn’t seen.

“I think people are driving worse these days,” he said. “It’s the whole “me’ attitude – “you’re in my way,’ “I’m in a hurry,’ that sort of thing. Until that changes, I’ll be doing this.”

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 237 or rwilliams@summitdaily.com.


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