Adjusters Be Cautioned: The Downfalls Of Automotive Forensics

Adjusters Be Cautioned:  The Downfalls Of Automotive Forensics

THE PROBLEM

In the past decade the field of forensics has become more popular.  We hear about it in the news, and there are countless shows like CSI that exaggerate the industries capabilities.  Unfortunately, there have been many well known cases where the findings by forensic experts were refuted, causing important cases to crumble when scrutinized.  You find that most forensic experts in those cases said they proved their scientific points.

So, why were their conclusions seriously flawed and later refuted?  Lets take a quick look, and see how it relates to Automotive Forensics or Failure Analysis of Vehicle Systems.  This article was written in response to what the National Academy of Sciences recently found in their landmark study.  In my opinion their findings show that most practitioners of automotive failure analysis or forensics are not very accurate because of a lack of education.  After all, it should be pretty hard for someone to claim their accurately performing Automotive Forensics without an education in that subject.  Right?

THE CALL FOR HELP

The National Academy of SciencesIn 2005 the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations urged Congress to direct the National Academy of Sciences to create an independent committee to study the forensic science community.  Much of this has to do with the advanced field of Forensic Pathology and major criminal cases, which is highly regulated with lots of oversight.  In essence, the top experts of the forensic communities were actually placing a call for help because they recognized their own field is seriously flawed.

This one act caused many to recognize that there are serious flaws in the fields of forensics.  Whether it be Forensic Pathology, which is highly regulated, or the fields of Automotive Forensics, Vehicle Fire Investigations or Accident Scene Reconstruction, which have no regulation.

THE NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES SURPRISING FINDINGS

In 2009, The National Academy of Sciences and Honorable Harry T. Edwards presented to Congress an alarming report.  (If you want the real truth read their report.)  The report outlined that our nations industries of forensics are seriously flawed.  The report directly states the major areas that are at the root of the problem.

  • Lack of expert oversight
  • Lack of proper education
  • Lack of proper certification or accreditation
  • Lack of proper funding
  • Lack of proper staffing

They directly stated in their report, “The disparities appear in funding, access to analytical instruments, and availability of skilled and well-trained personnel; and in certification, accreditation, and oversight.  These shortcomings pose a threat to the quality and credibility of forensic science practice and its service to the justice system, concluded the committee.”

When you hear a list to include the most basic of fundamentals like education, technical oversight, analytical instruments, well-trained personnel, etc…  you know it’s bad.  That list includes essentially 90% of everything any forensic expert needs in order to draw an accurate conclusion.  There is a direct correlation between their findings, and what is going on in the similar fields for the insurance industry of Automotive Forensics, Vehicle Fire Causation and Accident Scene Reconstruction.  However, if you look really close you will find that these fields are much worse off than regulated fields like Forensic Pathology.

INSURANCE INDUSTRY DELIMA

So, how does this information reflect on the insurance community involved in expensive vehicle claims?  It has a huge influence on claims that require:

  • Fire Causation
  • Mechanical Analysis
  • Electrical Analysis
  • Fraud Detection
  • Accident Scene Reconstruction

These type of investigations require someone to scientifically analyze the vehicle and the claim in order to determine what happened.  The analysis of an air bag, black box, electronic system, steering system, engines, fuel systems, etc… all requires a highly trained expert utilizing highly proven analysis techniques.  The National Academy of Sciences report points to all the same types of technical questions that need to be answered that an insurance adjuster would ask during the initial part of a claim.  Exactly what happened, and can it be properly proved?

So, what do you think The National Academy of Sciences would have to say about the actual science that is being applied to your vehicle claims?  If they analyzed the educational backgrounds of the experts commonly used they would tell you that they are severely lacking in many areas of mechanical and electrical technologies in modern vehicle systems.  That they are clearly missing a proper education in modern vehicle technologies, their systems, and proven techniques of automotive failure analysis.  That they don’t have the education, diagnostic equipment or expert oversight to come to an accurate conclusion.

Remember, experience means nothing in automotive forensics if you don’t have the basic scientific education in the first place, and ASE Certification has nothing to do with Automotive Forensics.  Many experts have been improperly using ASE Automotive Certifications as their calling card, but it has little do to with automotive forensics.  Without a proven education in modern vehicle systems it would be like asking a forensic pathologist to do a great job, when he or she has no education in biology, human anatomy, toxicology, DNA technology, or any other scientific areas.  Just personal experience.

AUTOMOTIVE FORENSICS…NO EDUCATION BUT LOTS OF CERTIFICATIONS

The sad truth about the Automotive Forensic and its related fields is that less than 5% of experts have any kind of post secondary education, such as an Associates, Bachelors, or Masters, or Doctorate Degree in vehicle systems.  This means that the fields of Automotive Forensics, Vehicle Fire Causation, and Accident Scene Reconstruction is much worse off than the findings of The National Academy of Sciences.  That’s because Automotive Forensics and related fields are completely unregulated.  Where Forensic Pathology is highly regulated with lots of oversight, which The National Academy of Sciences says needs to be completely overhauled and dramatically improved upon.

This problem begs to ask the question, “How can someone claim to perform Automotive Forensics or failure analysis without a college education in those technical systems?  In fact, you will find that most Automotive Forensic experts have no verifiable proof of ever having worked as a technician either.  The most common way a non vehicle expert can look like a vehicle expert is to obtain the easily accessible ASE Automotive Certification.  We wrote an article entitled, “How ASE Certification Hurts The Insurance Industry.”  That article provides a far more in-depth look into the pitfalls of ASE Certification, and why it is not a standard for the knowledge of Automotive Forensics.  If you use this certification as a basis for hiring an expert you will be doing exactly what The National Academy Of Sciences doesn’t want you to do.  Hire an improperly qualified individual.

logo-aseASE is nothing more than a standardized multiple-choice test.  Their tests are not designed to certify the knowledge of someone performing cause and origin analysis of modern vehicle systems.  They test for basic diagnostic and repair techniques for mechanics, and they do not provide any training.  More importantly, they do not test for the knowledge of Theory of Operation, which is the deep understanding of how a system works and is absolutely necessary for Cause and Origin Analysis or Forensics.  They also do not test for failure analysis techniques, such as analyzing engine bearings or thousands of other parts to understand why they failed.

Because the tests do not cover theory of operation or failure analysis techniques they are easy to pass, and do not qualify anyone for Automotive Forensics.  Many experts working for the insurance industry have become ASE Certified in automotive systems without ever being trained in vehicles, or having worked on them.  So, how does a non-expert actually pass an ASE Certification tests.  That is easy.  ASE provides “Cliff Notes”, so that potential test takers can understand the lingo and pass the tests.  Also, there are dozens of companies that produce sample ASE Tests, so a prospective individual can just read hundreds of questions and answers to prep for the test.  After all, how do you think a huge portion of the Automotive Forensic industry obtained ASE Certification without an education in vehicles and never having worked on them?

There are also forensic specific certifications like Certified Vehicle Fire Investigator (CVFI) or Accreditation Commission for Traffic Accident Reconstruction (ACTAR).  These certifications also have little to do with the technologies, complexities or failure analysis techniques of modern vehicles.  This deficiency is a large problem found by The National Academy of Sciences.  The lack of appropriate training and appropriate credentials.  To make things worse, they have no expert oversight or professor of Automotive Technology guiding them.  They are completely on their own without a background or education in the vast complexities of modern vehicle and equipment systems.

The CVFI certification (Certified Vehicle Fire Investigator) is obtained by taking a 3 day seminar, covering 19 subjects, with only 3 of the subjects actually being related to vehicle components or systems.  So in total you get a few hours of training in vehicle components.  Since 73% of all vehicle fires are caused by a mechanical or electrical problem (NFPA data)  the CVFI course misses about 99% of what a person needs to know in proving a mechanical or electrical problem was the cause.  A non vehicle expert might be able to determine the general epicenter of the fire which is often easy, but they will not be able to assist you at going after a manufacturer or the last mechanic that worked on the vehicle.  But, when someone says they are CVFI certified you would think the certification covers or requires advanced knowledge in vehicles when it doesn’t.

ACTARACTAR certification is merely obtained by taking a test, which tests individuals for basic knowledge of accident scene reconstruction.  Their tests do not cover steering systems, suspension systems, supplemental restraint systems, tires, electrical systems, etc…  It’s primarily to determine if you can look at skid marks and determine how fast the car was traveling.  This all means that ACTAR does not qualify individuals to examine vehicle systems to see if they played a roll in the accident, or analyze air bag systems, black boxes, etc…  But, once again someone who says they are ACTAR certified might mislead you into thinking they are qualified to analyze the vehicle.  (Especially when they also have an ASE Certification.)

THE CURE

Insurers need to be keenly aware of what The National Academy of Sciences found.  Their findings directly show that the fields of Automotive Forensics, Vehicle Fire Causation, Mechanical Analysis and Accident Reconstruction are seriously flawed.  However, you can easily confirm yourself that an education in modern vehicles is quite rare in these fields.  It is necessary for insurers to more carefully scrutinize who is analyzing their vehicles, and what levels of expertise those individuals bring to the table.

Cars and trucks became so complex decades ago that anyone who is going to perform failure analysis of a vehicle system must have some form of extensive post-secondary education in them.  Most students today who receive just a 2 year degree in Automotive Technology will have to commit to over 1,000 hours of time to pass the course.  This type of education should be a minimum standard for anyone performing Automotive Forensics or Failure Analysis of any vehicle or equipment system for the insurance community.  Get a degree first, and then obtain relevant experience.

If more and more insurance adjusters request those type of qualifications, it will send a strong message to the industry that those requirements must be met.  In time, this will cause more individuals to pursue a proper education in modern vehicle technologies and the insurance industry will reap the rewards.

Tech Check has over 20 years of experience with over 5,000 cases handled for insurers.  Field inspectors for Tech Check are required to be degreed in modern vehicle systems, which is a rare commodity in the insurance industry.  Call us if we can assist you with any type of vehicle claim, or if you just have a quick technical question.

Tech Check provides automotive forensics and failure analysis of vehicles and heavy equipment systems in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York , New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania.  We assist insurance carriers with failure analysis of engines, transmissions, braking and antilock systems, steering and suspension systems, electrical systems, safety restraint and air bags, event data recorders (EDR) and hydraulic systems.

S. Bailey
Automotive Engineer