CHP and Caltrans are watching us drive on the freeway

Green means traffic traveling over 50 miles per hour

In Kearny Mesa, on a road called Opportunity, people in the Transportation Management Center watch over us. The operations room looks like a set from a film on NASA space travel. Designed like a theater, the room curves around a high bank of multiple screens displaying local freeway traffic. Facing the video wall, on dozens of desks, about 100 computer monitors and a few televisions scroll imagery and data.

In a sense, the center -- a joint venture between Caltrans and the California Highway Patrol -- is the heart of San Diego, keeping the county's arteries circulating.

The Man Behind Those Freeway Cameras

It's the beginning of afternoon rush hour, 4:00 p.m. on an autumn Thursday. I'm sitting with Larry Landeros, a media information officer who works for the California Highway Patrol.

"What I do here is I monitor the computer that gathers all the information that comes into this room, and I provide that information back to the media, whether it be newspaper, radio, or television," Landeros, 49, tells me. "And I keep a log here, and the media has access to it via the Internet. Over here, I have a Caltrans freeway speed map screen, and it lets me know how fast traffic is moving all over town so I can relate to the public what slowing down is occurring. And then I do my broadcasts on radio and television."

Landeros has been with the CHP for 23 years, the past 7 with the Transportation Management Center. He shares media-information-officer duties with Alicia Contreras and Robert Sanchez. Between 3:30 and 6:00 p.m. every weekday, Landeros delivers six 45-second radio traffic reports for KECR 910 AM and two 25-second television traffic reports on KGTV Channel 10.

At 4:15, he receives a phone call, says hello, and then launches into a speedy report:

"Good afternoon. On the eastbound 94 we've got brake lights from out of the downtown area to the Interstate 15 before heading back to full speed. Eastbound 8 slows from the 805 to Waring, with additional slowing East Main to Greenfield in the El Cajon area. Southbound 805 slow out of the Golden Triangle to 52. Expect to be on and off of the brakes from the 163 to Interstate 8. Brake lights reappear around Division Street, and they're going to last to Plaza Boulevard. Northbound 15, we have slowing as you come up on Ted Williams Parkway. That's going to last till Rancho Bernardo Road. Northbound 5, typical slowing from the 805 merge until Via de la Valle. Additional slowing Palomar to Cannon. Southbound 5, the brake lights get real heavy from Encinitas Boulevard to Manchester, and then again from Washington Street all the way through the downtown area. Eastbound 78, expect a little slowing around Emerald Drive. The real brake lights begin around Rancho Santa Fe Road, and they're going to last all the way to Interstate 15. Remember to buckle up. For KECR radio, I'm Officer Larry Landeros for the California Highway Patrol."

Landeros doesn't trip over a single word.

"It took about three or four months for me to figure out how to do that," Landeros concedes. And then he says, "I can actually do it without looking at my cheat sheet or the computer screens, it's become so predictable." And then he demonstrates. He repeats his whole report, verbatim, while looking me straight in the eye. Then he smiles.

Landeros has an engaging manner. It's easy to see why he was chosen to represent the California Highway Patrol on television. You've probably seen him, five evenings a week for the past seven years on the five o'clock news. He gets two to three seconds of airtime at 5:25 and two to three seconds more at 5:45. He wears thin reading glasses about halfway down his nose and sports a thick black mustache. His hair is mostly black, but his sideburns are gray.

Landeros uses a video wall control panel to patch in to the 78 cameras located on the highways throughout the San Diego corridor. He hits a few buttons, toggles a joystick, looks around, and zooms in on traffic all over the city.

There are three ways to monitor the area traffic. Landeros can patch in to the freeway cameras and watch cars, he can refer to the Caltrans freeway speed map, and he can watch the codes on the computer-assisted dispatch (CAD) screen.

The Traffic Management Center also offers a useful array of interactive services directly to the public. You can either go online and type in 511sd.com, or dial 511 from your phone, and you're offered all sorts of traffic information, including how to use public transportation, what accidents are where, how long it might take you to get where you're going (provided there are freeways there), and so on.

And best of all, 511 is a free call.

On the video wall of the operations room, I can see the freeways getting busier. It doesn't happen all at once, though. Instead, I look away for four minutes, and when I look back, the traffic is thicker and slower. But if I watch the screen continuously for four minutes, then I can't tell that anything has changed. It's like watching a sunset.

The freeway speed map updates every 30 seconds. At 3:30, the routes on the screen are all green (indicating traffic traveling over 50 miles per hour), with a little yellow (37 to 50 miles per hour). By 4:30, a dozen red lines (under 37 miles per hour) have appeared. The red lines will remain until 6:30 or so, when the yellow and green take over again.

Collisions and traffic incidents show up on the dispatch screen. The screen is all in code. An 11-79 is an accident with an ambulance rolling; 11-80 is an accident with major injuries; 11-81 is an accident with minor injuries; 11-82 is an accident with property damage only. And 11-83 is an accident without any details.

After listening to Landeros's radio report (twice), it occurs to me that he must have to think of a lot of different ways to say the same thing.

"All the time," he says, laughing. "Sometimes I'll use off-ramps as reference points, and sometimes I'll use communities. I might say Kearny Mesa to La Jolla one time, and then I might say Kearny Villa Road to Genesee Avenue the next time. And then I need different ways to say 'slow.' Expect brake lights, brake lights appear, congestion starts, traffic slowing, and so on."

At 5:02, Landeros leads me to "the glass room," a soundproof glass enclosure in the corner of the operations room where he does his live television broadcasts.

He brushes his hair, hooks himself up to a bunch of wires, and surveys various cameras to determine which traffic views he might show to people who are watching the evening news.

"I like to show the 15 near the Ted Williams Parkway," Landeros says, bringing this camera's view up onto a nearby screen. "Another one I like is the 52 leading into Kearny Mesa. And then, my favorite," and at this, he hits a few buttons, and a spectacular view of downtown comes onto the screen, "boom. Look at that. The 5 freeway headed south toward downtown, with all those buildings in the background. You should see the view from this camera in the morning, with all the sunlight coming through the windows."

At 5:10, eastbound on the 94, near 28th Street, the first crash of the Thursday rush hour occurs. A black Chevy Tahoe and a black Ford Escape have gotten into a minor fender bender.

Landeros sees the report of the crash on the dispatch screen and then finds the two cars on one of the freeway cameras. Within moments, we can see that the Escape has rear-ended the Tahoe, and the unharmed drivers are talking to a police officer on the center divide.

"Not a serious collision," Landeros says, "and they're not even blocking any lanes. But still, all the lookey-loos slow down, and traffic gets congested."

I comment that this seems like a slow rush hour. Or rather, a fast rush hour, as it were.

"Very noneventful," Landeros says. "But we don't use the Q-word in here." At this, Landeros produces a yellow notepad and a pen and writes something down. Then he shows me the word "QUIET."

I say, "Quiet," and Landeros waves his hands theatrically.

"No," he says, mock seriously. "You could blow it for us. It's a jinx. We don't ever say the word. Instead, we say 'noneventful.' "

Landeros positions himself before a television camera and small klieg light. He continues to chat with me, even as the light comes on and the camera activates. He's got a small television on one side of the room showing the five o'clock news. The traffic segments will come on right after the segments about the weather.

I can't hear Brooke Landau, Channel 10's traffic anchor, but she must have said something into Landeros's earpiece because he interrupts our conversation to say hello to her. They talk about what they'll be covering when they go on the air.

A second collision occurs at 5:20 on the westbound 8 at Taylor Street. According to the dispatch screen, two vehicles are on the right shoulder, a gray jeep and a green sedan. Landeros finds them a minute later on a freeway camera, and all we can tell is that the crash was not serious. "They're exchanging information," Landeros says. "Those are good people, good citizens of America."

At 5:25, the traffic segment starts, and Landeros goes quiet, evidently listening for his cue on his earpiece. A minute later, his face suddenly appears on the television screen -- for about two seconds, before it shifts to freeway-camera views -- and he bursts out talking.

"And good afternoon to you," he begins. "The first camera we're going to take a look at is at 15 and Ted Williams Parkway. You can see the traffic moving nicely. You might see some slowing when you get to the Rancho Bernardo area, but it's a pretty nice drive for the most part. And into Santee, very tight from the 163 all the way to Mast Boulevard, but it should lighten up as you get into Santee. Brooke, back to you."

About 19 seconds. Short and sweet.

"So that's it for that," Landeros says. But less than two minutes later, his telephone rings, and it's time for him to do another 45 seconds for radio. He goes through the whole routine and doesn't miss a word.

After he's done, Landeros looks over at me. "Switching between the two mediums is a real challenge."

To me, he sounds like a pro.

A few minutes later, scanning the dispatch screen, Landeros says, "We're pretty accident-free."

He tells me that although it's a noneventful rush hour, this isn't at all unusual. And even if there were multiple collisions with fatalities, the energy in the operations room wouldn't change much. No one raises his or her voice, and no one starts running around. It's still the same 20 or so people, answering 911 calls and monitoring information.

At 5:40, a third accident is reported on the dispatch screen. Northbound 5 at Sassafras Street, a four-vehicle collision -- golden Lexus, black Jeep, and two unknown vehicles. And when Landeros patches in to the proper camera and toggles the joystick, we see that this is, again, a minor accident. Certainly no injuries, and we can't see any twisted metal.

A few minutes later, Landeros delivers his second report for the five o'clock news. After he finishes and packs up the wires in the soundproof glass television room, it's right about 6:00 p.m. His phone rings, and he does his last radio spot for the evening.

Landeros's workday will continue for a few more hours, but his celebrity time is over until tomorrow.

"Well," Landeros says, as he leads me out of the building, "tonight was a slow night. But oftentimes, we can go a couple weeks in a row like this, with no serious crashes and nothing life threatening. And then all of a sudden, it's bam! We'll get a whole bunch of them right in a row." He tells me the last fatal crash in the area occurred over a week before.

But for now, the rush-hour crawl has already begun to give way to the ordinary speed limits of night.

"Nine-one-one emergency."

"Um, this is on highway 5, right by Mission Bay. We just saw a man hit another man with a car."

"Was this person standing near a semitruck, ma'am?"

"Yes. Yes. Did you get a call on it?"

"We're getting several calls on this, ma'am. May I have your name, please?"

At 11:00 a.m. on a weekday, most of the desks in the operations room are empty. About 20 CHP officers and Caltrans engineers talk on headsets, type, walk around, and engage in conversation.

Today, I'm patched in to the emergency phone line of Caltrans public safety dispatcher John Burke.

And right on cue, Burke delivers his tagline.

"Nine-one-one emergency."

Burke's 911 voice is slightly more intense than his normal speaking voice, but that only means that he goes from sounding like a hypnotist to talking like the rest of us. Burke's manner gives off an air of relaxedness.

But there is one hint of hurry in John Burke.

What he really says when he answers the phone is "Nine-one emergency." Not "Nine-one-one." Just "Nine-one."

Under the circumstances, that omitted syllable may have saved lives over the years.

Burke's short hair is dusted with gray. He recently turned 40. His quiet, keen eyes keep a constant smile in them. And his chin is five o'clock shadowed, even at 11:00 a.m.

As he sits at his long, curved desk, Burke faces three computer monitors: a mapping screen, a dispatch screen, and a screen with information about incoming cell phone signals.

But Burke can't rely on the information from cell signals. Sometimes the data's accurate, and sometimes it's off by miles.

If you dial 911 from a land line, your local police station gets the call, and they know where you are. But if you dial 911 from a cell phone, the call goes to a Traffic Management Center. And the dispatcher might have a sense of where you are. Maybe. The systems that track and pinpoint the locations of cell phone users are notoriously unreliable.

That's why Burke almost always asks the same question after his 911 tagline. "Where are you?"

If the person hesitates, he might say, "I need two cross streets and an address." If the person doesn't know, then he or she is going to need to find out.

"I'm not going to guess where someone is," Burke says. "I have to know where he is."

That way, Burke knows which medics to roll if the emergency requires a medic.

To answer 911 calls or public service calls, Burke clicks on a green window on the left computer monitor.

To talk to me instead, Burke clicks on a red window.

Whenever he clicks the green window, the phone rings just about every minute.

"Nine-one emergency."

A woman's voice crackles over the line. She's out of breath and sounds as if she's either driving or outdoors. She begins to tell Burke why she's calling and where she is, but her voice cuts in and out.

Burke interrupts.

"Ma'am," he says, "your cell phone cut out really badly. What freeway are you on? Northbound or southbound? And before or after what off-ramp?"

She's calling about some debris on the highway.

"And what did you see out there?"

She's seen two buckets rolling around.

"And what lane were they in, counting from the left side?"

She tells him they're pretty much all over the road.

"Okay," Burke answers. "And what's your name, ma'am?" And then he confirms her cell phone number.

While this conversation is taking place, Burke types codes into his computer. Each bit of code indicates what's taking place, where, when, and who should be alerted. In this case, a Caltrans road crew will head out to clean up the buckets.

This kind of call is far more common than high-urgency ones. But nevertheless it's an important call.

"A lot of people don't know when to call 911." Burke clicks the red window and turns to me. "But anything in a freeway lane can get kicked up and go through someone's windshield or make someone swerve into another lane. We should know about highway debris right away."

Caltrans estimates that its crews collect around 20,000 cubic yards of lost objects and trash from the county's roadways each year. That's enough garbage to fill 20 average-sized houses from floor to ceiling.

And that's only the collected garbage.

Burke clicks the green window, and his phone beeps.

"Nine-one emergency."

A man with a thick Spanish accent says that he's seen a reckless driver cutting people off on the 805 freeway.

Burke gets the man to be as specific as possible, and exactly one minute and three seconds later, the information has been logged into the computer and the call is done.

After Burke presses the button that ends the call, I commend him for his ability to understand the man through his accent.

"The good thing about coming from L.A.," Burke says, "is 20 percent of your calls were Spanish, 20 percent were Vietnamese, 20 percent were Chinese. I can understand a lot from having worked there. You just do the best you can to extract information from people, regardless. And if you get to the point where you can't, then you quickly get a translator on the phone. Because if you can't understand everything they're saying, then you may miss something that's really important."

Translators?

"Yes, we have a 911 translating service," Burke answers in his composed voice. "And we get them on the phone with us, and we still guide the caller through everything. And we have access to translators for every language. I used one once for Swahili."

Burke's line beeps with another call.

"Nine-one emergency."

No answer.

"Hello? Hello?"

Dead air.

"Nine-one-one emergency." Burke's back to speaking more slowly now. "Hello? Hello?"

But there's no one there.

"One of the things we get here," and Burke points to the monitor on our left, "you see this?" He's indicating the phone number of the call that's just come in. "This is either an old cell phone, one of the ones that used to have '9' as a speed dial for 911 and someone's sitting on their phone, or that was a prank phone call."

Burke says calls come in all the time with no people on the other end. He figures it's usually due to accidental dialing or a small child.

With so many different kinds of 911 calls -- from the accidental to the critical -- how can a dispatcher be trained to handle them all?

"You have to be able to think on your feet," Burke says, "and you have to listen and pay close attention. Experience helps too. I've just about heard it all, over the years. And the best way for things to go is for the person who calls in to just let me guide them to the information I want. A lot of people will get angry with us, but we are asking things for a reason. We're trained to do it, but we really don't have time to explain it. Sometimes, people want to go into a big long story, but if we cut you off, there's a reason for it. The operator's not trying to be rude. So if you do call, then let the operator guide you through the call. That's the fastest thing you can do."

I imagine that Burke's workday must have highs and lows: flurries of activity followed by long lulls. I ask him whether he'll read a book or watch television in between calls or whether he has to be "on" for 12 hours straight.

"You have to know what's going on in here," he says. "If I don't know what's happening everywhere in this room and everywhere on this computer, then that breaks my concentration. Then if I get a call, and somebody else is already on that situation, then I should already know about that."

Twelve hours of constant attention? That must be difficult.

"Well," Burke says, "up in L.A., it was eight hours nonstop."

Burke has worked for three years at the San Diego Traffic Management Center, and before that, he had the same job for six years at the center in Los Angeles.

He continues, "In L.A., they don't have the lulls. Now, San Diego's growing, and I have noticed that the lulls are getting smaller, but we have busy times and slower times throughout the day."

According to recent numbers provided by Caltrans, San Diego motorists drive over 12.5 billion miles each year. Our local freeways might carry more than 200,000 cars on them every day.

That's why the San Diego center is online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and even has a kitchen and an area with beds where workers can nap or get a full night's rest.

Burke and his fellow dispatchers field over 1.3 million calls per year, which breaks down to about 3000 calls per day, for an average of over two calls every minute.

And while lives do get saved and moments of excitement do occur, the fact is, most of the calls aren't all that exciting.

"We get calls all day from people who are asking for phone numbers," Burke says. "But those are calls on the public information lines. The 911 lines will get noise complaints and business disputes, but we don't handle any of those. And of course we get prank calls."

Burke's heard unusual things over the years.

"One call I remember was a hot air balloon landing on Torrey Pines Road," he remembers, laughing. "And then you have your basic calls about a dog running on the freeway. But then the next thing you'll have is someone running after the dog and trying to catch it. And those are serious calls. You don't want people running around on the freeway. I mean, I like dogs, but you don't want people to get hit also. And any kind of bridge jumper or suicide call-in, those always get your heart pumping. Once in a while, we'll get the person who is about to commit suicide calling in, and you just have to talk to them. Oh, and one time, I remember it was early in the morning on a Sunday, and there was a guy driving down the freeway with a woman tied to the hood of his car."

Burke says that motorcycle accidents are about the worst things he deals with on a regular basis.

"They're usually really bad," he says. He keeps his hands folded in front of him as he quietly talks. "I had one a couple of weeks ago, where I was talking to a motorcyclist up in the mountains who was trapped underneath his motorcycle off the road, and no one could see where he was. And he couldn't move. But I had to figure out where he was. So I had my map, and I was asking him how far up the mountain road he was, and I had to confirm a lot of things. And that was a tough call, because he was in a lot of pain. But we found him."

It sounds as though Burke derives satisfaction from his job.

He agrees. "No matter how many times you get weird calls or you get frustrated, when you go home, there's always going to be those 30 calls that you don't even remember, where you got somebody an ambulance for a stroke or a heart attack or you helped some guy who cut off his hand -- all these things, where if you remember them, you only talked to this person for 30 seconds, but you really saved their lives."

Burke is an anonymous lifesaver. It has to be frustrating not to get any of the glory for his good deeds.

"Not really, no," Burke disagrees, barely changing his pitch of voice. "I went into the Highway Patrol Academy, and when I was in training, before I came to dispatch, one thing I found out is I would rather be in here than standing in the fast lane on the freeway, with cars coming at 80 miles an hour. That's a little more stressful."

Burke and his fellow dispatchers must not get much closure concerning the events they hear about. An emergency is reported, Burke deploys forces to deal with it, and then he never hears about it again.

"That's something you get used to," Burke says, shrugging. "We're all really too busy. You move on, from call to call. You can't let anything stay with you, good or bad."

Burke's job requires a unique skill set.

"Most of the time, we're doing three things at once," he agrees. "You're typing, talking, and listening. And you have to remember."

Must be tough to find people to do what Burke does.

The pay for a 911 call dispatcher -- who might work as radio dispatcher one day, public safety dispatcher the next -- ranges from $3413 to $4147 per month, plus a $300 retention bonus, time and a half for overtime (and almost everyone works at least some overtime), and two-and-a-half-time holiday pay.

And, in fact, there is a shortage in staffing at the center. Ideally, 55 dispatchers would be on the payroll. Currently, 42 positions are filled, and 10 of those 42 are trainees.

Burke tells me, "It would be nice to have five radio dispatchers and eight people answering 911 calls, no matter how busy it is in here. But on a typical day, we only have two people answering 911 calls."

Then he specifies, "The calls can roll over to the radio dispatchers, but ideally, we'd have more people in here. And the biggest thing is retention. Getting people to make it through the training is really important."

It takes about a year to become a fully trained public safety dispatcher. And then you're in for some odd hours.

"We're on 12-hour shifts," Burke explains, "so I come in at 5:30 in the morning, and I leave at 6:00. I get a half hour for lunch, and a 15-minute break almost every two hours. I work three 12-hour days one week, and four 12-hour days the next, so that has its benefits. You get some real time off, which allows you the opportunity to just get away from it all."

Burke makes his phone line go green, and we sit a moment, waiting for an emergency.

The phone beeps again.

"Nine-one emergency."

A man is calling in from his boat. "I'm in a boat on the water," he says. "And my engine quit, and I'm taking on water."

The man's cell phone has a San Diego prefix.

"Are you in the ocean?" Burke asks.

"No," the man answers, "I'm on Lake Elsinore." He sounds levelheaded but a little worried.

"Okay," Burke says, "we're going to get the sheriff on the line. Just a second."

Burke flips a switch on his headset.

"Hi, sheriff," he says. "This is CHP. I have a transfer for you. I have a boat on Lake Elsinore."

And Burke hands off the call.

He clicks his line red and turns to me.

"I've never been to Lake Elsinore," he says, in that calm hum of a voice, "but I do know who handles the lake. I know that there's a sheriff in a boat there."

I imagine that Burke's heart must start beating faster during these calls, but he has to remain calm. The word I've thought of as I've listened to him is "dispassionate." But in his dispassion he listens closely and remains extraordinarily present.

"I need to think of what questions to ask to get the information I need," Burke says. "And I have to do that quickly."

I tell Burke that I've called 911 only once in my life. It was back in 2001, and they were closing up Bar Dynamite in Mission Hills, right below an overpass for the 5 freeway. About 200 of us were standing out on the sidewalk, talking about how to get home, and we heard a skid and crash, and then a flaming vehicle went sliding past on the freeway above. A few dozen people (including me) went running up the embankment to see what happened. I called 911 along the way. I was put on hold.

"The thing about wait times for 911 calls is this," Burke says. "Most of the time, people get right through. But in that situation, you say 200 people might have witnessed that accident. How many of them do you think were calling and trying to get through? Incidents like that inundate our systems and can skew the numbers. But our system is also set up in such a way that if you're calling from somewhere else while we're getting all those calls from the same place, then your call will go through."

So if 911 puts you on hold for a big, visible event of some sort, then you can probably figure it's safe to just hang up?

"No," Burke insists. "You don't want to hang up. You want to let us tell you what we have going on. You never want to hang up, because you never know. And we don't want to miss that one thing. And there could be two or three things going on in one place at one time. I've had that happen. I've had an accident in the street, near a building, and everyone's giving the same address, but on the second floor of the building, there was also a robbery. And we might have missed that if people were on hold and just hanging up. That was in L.A."

Burke then asks me what happened with the accident I witnessed.

I tell him that as I ran up the hill to the freeway, I finally got through to a 911 operator and was told that the accident had already been reported. And then, when I reached the road, I saw one of the most horrific things I've ever seen.

A motorcyclist had T-boned a car doing at least 80 miles an hour, probably more. The dented car was parked now, across a lane near the on-ramp, and the motorcycle was on fire about 200 yards down the road. And in between the car and the motorcycle, spread in pieces for 200 yards all over the freeway, was the body of the motorcyclist.

"You should talk to someone on the MAIT team," Burke says. "That's kind of the other side of what I do in here. Those guys see that kind of thing all the time."

Traffic Special Forces

"Nine-one-one emergency."

"Yes! I just got hit by a car and I'm lying on the side of the street! Aaaah!"

"Where are you?"

"I don't know."

"Okay, ma'am. You were hit. Are you a pedestrian?"

"No, I was changing my tire, and I was hit by a car."

"Okay, but I don't know where you are. I need you to tell me where you are."

"I'm close to Wal-Mart. I am bleeding so bad. Please don't let me die. Don't let me die! I have a baby!"

"We had seven different fatal accidents in a single weekend once."

I'm talking to Sergeant Cory Ball, 37, who is supervisor of the California Highway Patrol's local Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT). Sergeant Ball's been with the highway patrol for 12 years, the past 5 with the team.

"We'll go for a few days or a week where there are no fatal accidents, but then we'll have a whole bunch at the same time, especially over holiday weekends, for instance."

Sergeant Ball's team -- the Border Division team -- is located in San Diego, but it covers four counties: San Diego, Orange, Imperial, and part of Riverside. The local team is Sergeant Ball, four investigative officers, a Caltrans engineer, and a motor-carrier specialist.

"These individuals bring different disciplines in the area of collision reconstruction," Sergeant Ball says. "We have an engineer who deals with load weight design, highway design, and things of that nature. Our motor-carrier specialist has an extensive history in the mechanics of vehicles.

"Along with our team," Sergeant Ball says, "we have MAIT associates. And those associates will cover duties in area offices, whether it be road patrol or special-duty assignments or investigations."

The associates supplement the primary team members when they need assistance in different areas. Sergeant Ball's primary team is on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

"Our main purpose is collision reconstruction," he says. "That's what we do on a daily basis. We assist in in-depth, complex investigations, ranging in a wide variety of issues. We have people who are dynamics specialists and human-factor specialists. So let's say we have a collision with multiple fatalities. There's physical evidence on the roadway, on the vehicles. When I refer to human factors, I mean the people who were involved in the collision. And what we ask is, 'What was going on prior to and leading up to this collision?' So we go into the in-depth history of the driver profiles. We have people who are trained to analyze, preserve, and collect the physical evidence, trace evidence, and DNA evidence on the roadway, and what we do is we get that evidence to our local crime labs to be able to determine all the factors surrounding a particular accident. We follow injury patterns, read component parts inside and outside the vehicles involved, collect DNA samples off air bags, and we're also able, in some instances, to determine how a crash happened through a dynamics analysis, speed analysis, and human factors."

How does the team begin an investigation?

"When we look at a collision, we look at it in what we call a nine-cell matrix," Sergeant Ball says. "So what we have is the pre-crash, the at-crash, and the post-crash phases of the collision. And then there's three categories within each of the crash phases: the environment, the human, and the vehicle. So three times three, and those components are the nine cells, as we call them.

"So when we look at a pre-crash, we look at the environment: was it raining, was it sunny, where was the sunlight, how was it reflecting, and so on. And then the human factor: was intoxication involved, either illegal drugs or alcohol or even prescribed medication, or was there sleep deprivation, which can be even more dangerous behind the wheel than someone who's been drinking alcohol. And then we look at the vehicles, examining them mechanically to determine whether or not there were any preexisting conditions with the vehicle that may have contributed to the collision. And then we do the same thing for the crash-moment, and for the post-crash collision scene, always thinking in terms of the environment, the human, and the vehicle."

Surely San Diego and the surrounding areas don't have these kinds of fatal accidents all the time.

"Our workload really varies," Sergeant Ball says. "Given the geographical area we respond to, we have numerous offices throughout the entire division, but again, we don't get involved in every case. Typically, we're involved in pretty severe cases, usually multiple fatalities. You know, I've been to scenes where we've had five, six, seven fatalities in one collision sequence. And there's a lot of times where we become involved in cases for the district attorney after the case has been submitted. We do work for allied agencies as well, like the FBI. We don't only do collision reconstruction. We also have training in evidence collection and preservation. So we'll go out with crime scenes sometimes, for officer-involved shootings or officer fatalities."

As it turns out, there has been a downward trend in fatal collisions in San Diego County over the past four years. According to the CHP, in 2004, 170 crashes led to 183 fatalities. In 2005, 163 crashes caused 188 deaths. In 2006, it was 155 and 177. And as of December 20 last year, 114 accidents had involved 128 deaths.

What's the worst thing Sergeant Ball's seen?

"One of the toughest things that I've had to do was I had to investigate on-duty officer-involved deaths with people that I've worked with. With friends. I've had to attend autopsies of people that I've worked with. Those are the things that stick with me. And some of the toughest cases that I think we deal with are those involving young children. Especially when they're not properly restrained in a vehicle, and you have this small child, and, you know, they can't buckle themselves into a car seat, and they're basically at the mercy of their parents or caregivers."

Sergeant Ball has a wife and children of his own, and, of course, he is a stickler when it comes to car safety. "I tell my children all the time that they aren't sitting properly in their seats or they aren't wearing their seat belts correctly," he says. "A seat belt wasn't designed to be worn under the arm, for instance. It actually will induce injury, and it won't protect you the way that auto manufacturers have designed it to."

I ask Sergeant Ball to tell me about a particular accident or two, but he's hampered by a couple of factors. On the one hand, he can't tell me about anything recent, due to legal concerns. But I speculate that there's another reason behind Sergeant Ball's reluctance to launch into a specific story about a fatal accident that he's witnessed. I suspect that Sergeant Ball has done his best to forget as much as he can.

Instead of telling me about a specific case, Sergeant Ball offers to walk me through what his team does in general at an accident scene.

"You have a major collision with multiple fatalities," Sergeant Ball begins. "Usually, you have the initial responding officer who gets on scene and handles the securement, as far as diverting traffic and trying to preserve as much physical evidence as he or she can. When it's something of that magnitude, you'll usually have a supervisor who responds to the scene. And that area commander might decide, okay, we'll go ahead and use MAIT on this. And then we'll be notified to respond, no matter what time of day it is, no matter where we're at. So we get the call, I activate my team, and we begin responding."

I interrupt Sergeant Ball to ask him whether the team rolls up in a big van with "MAIT" on the side, à la television shows.

He chuckles. "We do have a service truck, which is a large truck that has a crane on it, so we're able to lift up motorcycles and cars. And there's a lot of specialized equipment on that truck that we use not only on-scene but also when we do our in-depth follow-up investigation with the mechanical inspections of vehicles. We also have other vehicles which bring our total station survey equipment, for physical evidence collection, markings, lighting equipment, generators, and so forth."

Sergeant Ball continues. "So when we initially get on-scene, again, we're looking at where the vehicles are, and we're seeing whether we need to reposition things to get physical evidence, and that's obviously secondary to making sure that all the emergency operations have been completed. Although, usually by the time we get there, that kind of stuff is done. The ambulances and whatnot have usually come and gone.

"And then we'll get there and worry about hazardous materials, fractured fuel lines, and the like, and we'll make sure our scene is safe. And always in the back of our minds, we'll analyze how we're going to process the scene to try to open up the roadway as quickly as we can.

"So we walk through the scene with the on-scene commander, we get a good understanding of where people went, and we'll decide whether we need to get anyone to a hospital to get any type of statements, and if not, then we know where they're at, so we can follow up with them.

"And then we process the scene. Usually we start by photographing the scene. I have my environment team that goes through and documents the collision, the roadway features, and geometry. The physical-evidence team is going through and marking and collecting physical evidence: tire-friction marks, debris, gouges, scrapes. And then we take the cars for evidence usually, to get measurements off of them for speed analysis as well as mechanical inspection.

"And then when we've wrapped it up, usually after a couple of hours, although sometimes it's longer if the scene is very in-depth, then we have a debriefing, we make sure that we have everything -- and that's what the team concept is for -- and then we break everything down, and we go back to the office, and we begin analyzing all this data that we've collected."

Sergeant Ball's job sounds as though it would be entertaining on a TV show.

"A lot of people try to glamorize what we do," Sergeant Ball acknowledges. "But to be quite honest with you, there's nothing very glamorous about what the MAIT team does. Most of what we see is actually quite horrific. But everyone on the team is very dedicated to the mission of the team. Me, personally, what got me involved in the MAIT program was I suffered a personal loss in a traffic collision in another state. My mother was killed in a crash in Colorado, when she was a passenger in a vehicle back in 1998. And Colorado was a no-fault state, which meant, basically, that they didn't put anybody at fault for the collision. But having that experience in my past, that's what's given me my drive, I would say, to do MAIT-type of work."

Sergeant Ball also does what he does on behalf of others.

"We want to answer those tough questions for the families. They want to know. They want to know what happened. And that's why we do these in-depth investigations."

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