It is common in car accidents for both drivers to believe they had the right of way. As police officers, it is our job to determine who is correct and who is incorrect. More so, even when a person knows they were wrong—having run a red light for example—an officer may encounter a situation where both drivers claim to have been in the right.
This makes the process of figuring out who is at fault more challenging, especially if the officer didn’t observe the accident. There are ways of getting to the facts, however, and most of the time an officer will be able to do so. Here is how we do that.
When both drivers present conflicting stories about the right of way, passengers may be able to shed some light. It is standard procedure to get statements from any passenger who is able to do so. As long as the passenger isn’t hurt and doesn’t require medical attention, the police officer will usually take a passenger, one at a time, away from the driver to get the statement. This helps ensure the other driver doesn’t coach him or her on the statement, directly or indirectly.
If one driver claims to have had a green light and he didn’t, the passenger is not necessarily going to come out and say as much (although sometimes they do). Instead, he or she may present a statement that doesn’t match the driver’s, which gives the officer the opportunity to ask more questions and possibly get to the truth.
If there are no passengers in either vehicle or if the passenger and driver stories seem to match, then the next step is to speak to witnesses. Most accidents have witnesses. These could be pedestrians walking by, the driver in the next lane or behind one of the vehicles, a person who saw it happen through a storefront window, etc.
Everybody stops and stares at accidents, and you only need a few who saw the moments leading up to the crash. Again, I can take these statements and bring them back to one of the drivers and challenge his or her statements to see if they are willing to change their tune. After all, these people don’t know either driver and have no reason to lie or be biased.
A driver who has a dash cam can be asked to show the footage. Raw video cannot lie (though sometimes it is subject to interpretation). However, unless there is a criminal investigation stemming from the accident (which we’ll get to later), this is entirely voluntary.
The damage will show us the point of impact and give us a clue as to how fast someone was going. It doesn’t give an exact number but when someone is going fast, the damage is always worse. If you hit someone and their whole front end is destroyed, or you snap an axle, that could tell us you were going way faster than the speed limit.
I remember one instance when one kid was going really fast—I’d estimate close to 90 mph. He hit a dip in the road, lost control, and struck three parked cars. The impact on the first parked car just demolished the trunk.
In this case, there were witnesses, but I could have told anyway, no matter what this kid claimed, that he was going extremely fast just by how wrecked the cars he hit were.
When There’s No Other Witnesses or Evidence
This is the biggest challenge for police officers. Let’s say it’s 2 am. Now there’s an accident and both drivers give you conflicting stories. There are no witnesses and no passengers and no dash cams.
Sometimes the demeanor of a person can give things away. Cops are not human lie detectors but sometimes we get a hunch. In this case, you try to get them to repeat their story. You can ask questions on specifics or just say something more general such as, “I don’t understand. Can you explain again what happened?”
The fact is they may not be lying so you can’t accuse them. But after several repeats, if the story keeps changing in noticeable ways, you try to push them on the issue.
When a Story Doesn’t Change
Sometimes people stick to their story. And it could be that they genuinely believe what they are saying is true. If both drivers claim to have had the right of way, that’s what the officer writes down. We look at skid marks or the lay of the land, and that might give us a tip. If I can draw my own conclusion, I’ll write that. But sometimes you can’t make an assessment as to who is wrong, so that gets written into the final police report.
When It’s a Criminal Investigation
Patrol officers are responsible for most accidents. But when an accident is related to a criminal offense, then an investigator can take over. This happens when one driver is drunk or on drugs, or if a driver had a suspended license or suspended registration. It also happens when there’s a hit-and-run.
The last one is more common than people think. A lot of people flee accidents out of fear. This is a huge mistake: Never run! If you do, the police will never get your side of the story.
Even worse, leaving the scene of an accident is a crime. It’s a traffic offense when there are no injuries, a misdemeanor when there are injuries, and a felony when there is a death.
But even in a tragic case where people are hurt or killed, an accident is sometimes just an accident. It doesn’t mean you are in big trouble or going to jail—unless you run.
That said when a criminal offense is involved, and there are conflicting statements, an officer can go to greater lengths to get the truth. If the witness or passenger statements and other facts don’t bear it out, then we can look to get camera footage if it’s available. This includes dash cams, Ring doorbell cameras, and security cameras from nearby businesses. In NYC there are Department of Transportation traffic cameras and those are easily accessible to officers.
Putting it All Together
It’s important to remember that when a driver’s statement doesn’t match the facts, it doesn’t always mean he or she is lying. Accidents are serious matters. People get confused, scared, or stressed. They can often misremember things. This is especially true when the person is injured. If an officer asks you a lot of questions at an accident scene, don’t assume he or she doesn’t trust you. At the same time, if it’s clear that another driver is giving inaccurate testimony, don’t assume he or she is trying to deceive the officer. At the end of the day, an officer will usually exhaust all avenues rather than taking a statement he’s not confident in.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Officer Mike Gheller is a 31-year-old native New Yorker and 7-year veteran with the New York City Police Department. He is currently an investigator in Brooklyn, where he handles summons, injury and property-damage-only accidents, hit-and-run accidents, and vehicle theft.