WRAL Investigates

As pedestrian crashes rise in Triangle, police use 3D technology to bolster investigations

Posted February 24, 2020 6:00 p.m. EST
Updated February 24, 2020 9:20 p.m. EST

A person was hit by a car, on average, about once every 36 hours last year in Raleigh, where the number of pedestrian deaths nearly doubled from 2018.

Police in the Capital City say they investigated 247 pedestrian crashes in 2019, of which 15 were fatal. Eight people died in 2018.

Officials say nine people died in 123 pedestrian crashes in Durham and seven people died in 67 crashes in Fayetteville last year.

"One is too many," said Sgt. Brian Massengill, who leads Durham Police's Traffic Services Unit.

His team is one of the first in North Carolina to use 3D printers to assist in their investigations.

Using data and imagery from a 3-D scanner, the 3D printer produces replicas of crashed cars. The finished product, which can look like a toy, allows investigators to examine the scaled-down car from all angles in the palm of their hand.

The car cutouts can even be used in court to explain cases that result in criminal charges.

“We are not working for just the driver or just the pedestrian," he said. "We are trying to put this all together and say, 'This pedestrian was outside of the roadway ... and look we can tell that because the shoes were here and they left a scrape on the ground here.'"

The 3D scanner is used by police at crash scenes. It sits on top of a tripod and can document the roadway in about 20 minutes, which allows police to open roads much faster. Massengill says the previous process took officers several hours.

The digital rendering, which provides a 360-degree view, puts investigating officers back into the scene after the cars are towed away.

"We can go out there in 20 minutes and gather 10 times more than what we had," Massengill said. "We are able to gather better evidence."

More than 545 pedestrians were hit by cars and at least 38 people died across the Triangle in 2019, including three pedestrian deaths in Cary, and one each in Fuquay-Varina, Holly Springs and Garner.

Statewide, 515 pedestrians were hurt and 114 killed in crashes investigated by the North Carolina State Highway Patrol. In 2018, records show 513 pedestrian injuries and 121 deaths on rural roads and interstates across North Carolina.

“If there’s a pedestrian at a crosswalk, the laws say you have to stop," Massengill said. "Not if you want to; not if it's convenient."

Massengill says many cases can be tied to distracted driving or distracted walking. He also noted in the Bull City an increase of drivers taking off and leaving pedestrians for dead.

"If they would have just stayed at the scene and helped, they might not have been charged at all," he said. "Now, they're being charged with felony hit-and-run."

Massengill says his team is focused on prevention, including a presence in driver's education classes to teach young drivers the rules of the road. He also says it's important to pinpoint problem spots and work with city engineers to create better infrastructure; including, sidewalks, shoulders and bike lanes.

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