Crash Detective

When an accident happens that could cost them up to eight figures in court, both defense and plaintiff’s firms want Steve Irwin’s investigation team on their side.

After the S&L crash of the late 1980s, Steve Irwin found himself and his newly minted UTA engineering degree at work setting a barbed wire fence in an Arlington subdivision for $6 per hour. Soon, though, a survey group came by the subdivision to map an automobile accident. Curious, Irwin left his fence, went over to investigate the exercise, and allowed that he was a trained engineer. After replying ”yes” to a question about his knowledge and proficiency in the use of laser-beam survey technology, Irwin says, “I immediately went from $6 per hour to $20 that day.” 

Fast-forward a few years, and Irwin was in the middle of downtown Manhattan trying to reconstruct an accident and feeling overmatched. “I needed to make a complex diagram that was beyond what civil engineering design software was capable of making efficiently,” he says. “I met Mike McCormick, who had expertise in a drafting design software program called AutoCAD. The result was an incredible partnership.”

Steve Irwin founded Scientific Analysis Inc. in the early '90s and has watched it evolve into a high-tech business, thanks to new technology and equipment. Photo by Sean Berry
Photo by Sean Berry
More than 20 years later, McCormick remains the senior technician with Irwin’s Scientific Analysis Inc., a specialized, Dallas-based accident-investigation consultancy with 14 employees engaged in more than 350 accident investigations and reconstructions a year. Not unlike the NCIS teams on television, SAI is split into four different teams, with the ability to put as many as eight employees in the field on a moment’s notice. 

“When the call comes in, you grab your gear and go,” Irwin says. “Calendars are rearranged, clothes are changed, and tools reserved and packed. Some team members are manning the phones and arranging contacts with everything from tow truck drivers to lawyers.”

SAI might send an individual or an entire team, and they might be gone a few hours or a few days. After the initial frenzy, Irwin says the SAI headquarters one block off of Lower Greenville falls back into a normal office rhythm. Often, though, the frenzied reaction to a call happens more than once a day.

The gear they grab is cutting-edge stuff: cameras, lasers, and other tools to measure friction on the roadway. They pack 30-foot-long “grade rods” to detail dimensions in photographs, a computer to communicate with the computer on the car or truck, even bright safety vests to let police know SAI belongs on the scene. 

Whether he’s investigating an accident involving a golf cart in Antigua or a 132-wheeler near Dublin, Texas—more about both later—Irwin says he almost always goes to the accident scene first, even if it has been cleared. “When I show up, a lot of times the cars are gone. But I might see a 50-foot-long set of skid marks followed by a tree that is knocked over, for example, and there’s a certain intensity that’s implied by the appearance,” he says. “Just as it would be if someone were to grab your arm and leave those fingerprint marks, and the harder they grab, the more intense those marks and the longer they last.”

Next comes the investigation of the vehicles themselves, often in a towing yard. “You walk in, and you are struck immediately by how much damage there is—either a lot or a little,” he says. “Big, huge dents are evidence of a big force, and smaller dents are a smaller force, and that ought to have some correlation with what you found on the scene.”

These days, Irwin explains, cars and trucks have computers on board designed to keep passengers safe in the event of a crash. But if there is a crash, part of the function is to tell us what might have been happening moments before and during. SAI has special computers and hardware to plug in and download that data. The digital download adds another layer to the analysis.

There are also some simple exercises, like checking to see whether the lights and brakes are in working order, and some tricks to the trade that might explain why the company is called Scientific Analysis Inc. Irwin explains: A headlight filament “gets so hot that when the metal gets hit during a crash, it’s closer to liquid. People in my field can just look at a light in a crash and, if that light filament is deformed in a way, then you can tell the light was on. If the glass breaks, the metal that was so white-hot instantly cools and turns these beautiful blue and green colors, and it oxidizes. So there’s evidence, evidence, evidence everywhere, and that’s what it comes down to.”

‘A Natural-born Presenter’

Ah, yes, evidence, as in courtroom evidence—a key to SAI’s actions and, for that matter, its very existence. From that first phone call, everything it does is aimed at potential testimony. “Either you are going to be cross-examined on it while you’re under oath in court, or deposed over what you did and how you did it … did you do this, did you do that … so you’re virtually under oath the whole time you are working,” Irwin says. “We’ve been in the courtroom many times, so we’ve seen a crash from boots on the ground to witness stand as much as anybody.”

The SAI teams are testifying either in court or in depositions several times a month. Says McCormick of his partner Irwin, “Steve is a natural-born presenter and engineer who often wins the confidence of the whole courtroom.”

Both defense and plaintiff’s firms hire SAI—big companies as well as everyday individuals. The verdicts at stake can range in value from peanuts to eight figures, and yesterday’s client can be tomorrow’s interrogator. “I think of it as the sheepdog in the coyote cartoons,” Irwin says. “They have their whole day of the coyote trying to get the sheep and the sheepdog trying to keep him away. And at the end of the day they clock out. That’s what it’s like.” 

Just how well Irwin and other staffers do in those courtroom environments has much to do with their effectiveness and reputation. SAI not only has to explain the dynamics of a crash to a client, but also what it might take to demonstrate the crash to a jury in a courtroom. Sometimes those demonstrations are both provocative and compelling—like one recent case involving five vehicles on a two-way road.

Says Irwin: “We made some really attractive, working products, including a life-sized cutout of a vehicle—with working brake lights—and took the cutout to the scene of the crash, placed it at the intersection where the crash happened, and smashed into it with an ice cream truck. It was fantastic, and it looked great on film.” Word of work like that gets around, and pretty soon folks are calling.

Then there was the case of the 132-wheeler. “That’s right,” Irwin confirms, “not just 18 wheels, but 132.” A company was moving something called a deethanizer, a gigantic “column” used in natural gas processing. Google that image, and there’s little doubt that if you and I saw it coming down the road, we would call this contraption a giant rocket.

As you can imagine, any accident involving 132 tires can leave what Irwin calls a “spaghetti bowl” of tire marks on the roadway. “It was, no kidding, 150 feet long, it weighed 800,000 pounds, and the tractor-trailer loaded weighed 80 tons,” he says. “This thing was massive, and it was involved in a crash.”

Not only did SAI team members make the trip to the accident site to diagram the roadway and photograph and map every single tire mark, but they also made a complete model of the truck, its load, and all 132 wheels on a model scale diagram of the scene. And they made it out of acrylic plastic, so jurors could see through it. 

If in many walks of life one picture is worth a thousand words, in Steve Irwin’s world, one map is worth a thousand pictures.

By the time the model was displayed in court, “we had it set up on a track where I could drag it back and forth and show the jury at every moment that every tire mark at that accident scene was accounted for,” Irwin says. Afterwards, jurors said it had been very difficult to understand the crash until “the guy with the model showed up.” 

You’d think that once you’ve figured out how to demonstrate the stopping of an 80-ton rocket, mapping a golf-cart accident would be easy. Not so much, Irwin says.

The call on that one came in from a Dallas insurance defense lawyer who’d once grilled Irwin on the stand while SAI was working on the other side. The golf-cart accident took place on a small island off of Antigua. A woman was hurt in a fall, claiming she was struck by one of the tables carried aboard a golf cart. 

Irwin admitted there was no question that a golf cart drove by carrying tables and chairs, and a woman at the scene was hurt. But the person driving the cart questioned whether a table actually struck the woman.

When Irwin was summoned to Antigua, he immediately made a gear checklist. He loaded up laser scanners, GPS survey equipment, a radar gun, a laptop, two video cameras, and other gear for the trip. After an all-night flight, he found himself stuffing that equipment onto a little ferry and trolling a short way to the small island where the accident occurred. “The captain stares at me with all this equipment in tow and gives me a look like, ‘Well, this has never happened before,’” he recalls.

Irwin loaded the actual golf cart with the same number of tables it had carried, and began acceleration testing with the videotape and the radar gun. “We stayed down there a good while,” he says. “We had to measure how big the path is, measure how big the cart is, measure how fast it can go, measure how fast it can stop … basically, we tried to recreate the whole day.”

Soon SAI had a digital model of the load, the cart, and the scene, including options showing what might happen if either the tables or the cart were not centered. Basically, Irwin was able to bring the Antiguan scene back to McCormick and others in the Dallas office to determine whether the table could reach where the woman remembered standing.

“We were now able to investigate not only what the driver said happened, but all sorts of ‘what if’ scenarios, including what the plaintiff said happened,” Irwin says.

Irwin believes an expert witness can lose credibility by casting a blind eye on alternative possibilities. During depositions on the Antigua incident, video was shown of what the golf-cart driver said had happened. When the plaintiff’s lawyer asked the driver why there was no study of her client’s position, Irwin said there was. He then showed his animation videotape of what it would have had to have looked like for the table to strike her. 

In the late 1990s, Irwin found himself flaying a machete and hacking his way through jungle roads in Venezuela. He was investigating the relationship between Firestone tires and Ford SUV rollovers—particularly in warm climates. His lasers back then were mostly sending out a single beam; today data is measured in millions of laser beams.  

So, if in many walks of life one picture is worth a thousand words, in Steve Irwin’s world, one map is worth a thousand pictures. The better the map or diagram of the actual scene, the easier it is to present to a client and, ultimately, a jury. The latest equipment is called a 3D laser scanner, which costs about $125,000. It’s a laser beam, Irwin says, that “gets tumbled by a prism and then spun on a platform, and the net effect is a globe of laser light. It three-dimensionally measures the location of everything it sees, right down to the leaves on the trees. And we’ll come back with millions and millions, 50 million, measurements at an accident scene. That’s not an exaggeration.” 

A few years ago, PBS produced a television show from Dealey Plaza assessing how the investigation into the Kennedy assassination would be different today, and SAI was asked to help. Irwin said the producers knew the first thing modern investigators would do is “laser-scan” the whole environment. So they contacted a company called Leica that makes sophisticated scanners. “Part of our work with PBS was modeling that scanned data and showing them how all that worked,” Irwin says. “So we got the Zapruder film … and we matched it to our [scanned] PointCloud [background]. And it was pretty fun.”  

The entire ride has been—if not always fun—certainly wild, with plenty of uncharted and anxious moments. For his part, McCormick sounds almost relieved that he and Irwin chose to gut it up and quit their “regular” jobs to chase this SAI dream. If not, he says, “I know we would both be sitting at a computer in a cubicle somewhere designing an endless series of storm drains and wondering where we would be today if we had just taken that chance.”

The SAI game plan has changed little over the last 25 years, with a high priority placed on pumping millions of dollars back into the company for infrastructure and equipment: computers, traditional survey gear, robotic survey gear, reflector-less survey gear, GPS survey gear, digitizing arms, laser scanners with speeds of up to a million points per second.  

The company spends zero dollars on advertising, and marketing consists of maintaining a website and making a few speeches at seminars. SAI does have one mantra: “To keep going,” Irwin says. “You get knocked down, you find a way to get up.”

Like so many company founders, Irwin recalls almost fondly the company’s early growing pains. He remembers his wife, Leslie, holding up a surveyor’s rod in a driving sleet. “And,” he says, “I remember us living in this house in Plano. The dining room and living room did not have one stick of furniture. I had spent all of our money on computers and equipment that I hoped might make us money.”

It has worked out well enough that Irwin has now been able to buy plenty of toys to go with his beloved equipment. He, Leslie, and their daughter, Chloe, live in one of the more fabulous houses in Lakewood. Irwin is hush-mouthed about the private company’s annual revenue, but does allow that he charges $295 an hour for his accident reconstruction work. 

By our math, that’s $289 more per hour than where he started.  

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