By Jami Jones
Too many times when things go wrong on the road, you’re left in a situation of “it’s your word against theirs.”
An impartial third party can be worth his or her weight in gold. But, especially on the road, finding that elusive eyewitness who might be able to bolster your story can prove to be next to impossible.
Today’s technology has afforded more and more truckers the opportunity to have that virtual eyewitness on board at all times thanks to dash-mounted camera systems. These high-tech – or even low-tech – observers can capture images critical to your defense.
Caught on tape
With their widespread use by law enforcement, it’s even possible to cash in on recordings when you’ve encountered a problem with an officer.
OOIDA members Chris and Christine Vanmeerhaeghe know all about this. The Grain Valley, MO, couple had come home this past July to attend a funeral.
“It was already a bad day,” Chris said. “Christine had gone to the funeral and was still upset and we had to get on the road.”
The couple headed out of Missouri on Interstate 70 taking a load to California. Christine was taking her turn in the sleeper as the couple crossed into Kansas and entered the Kansas Turnpike.
As Chris inched his truck through the tollbooth, the toll attendant already had the toll ticket in her hand, waving it in the air. He accepted the ticket and exchanged pleasantries with the attendant before rolling up his window and continuing on.
A Kansas trooper was hanging out around the tollbooth as the Vanmeerhaeghes passed through.
“I saw him giving me a real mean stare,” Chris said. “And I wondered what his problem was.”
As Chris eased away from the tollbooth, he saw the trooper run to his patrol car.
Less than a half-mile from the tollbooth, the officer had pulled the Vanmeerhaeghes over.
No sooner had the trooper gotten to the window of the truck, Chris said he knew the cop was steamed.
“He asked me, ‘What in the world you doing driver? I should arrest you for aggravated assault,’ ” Chris said. “Then he told me I was speeding through the tollbooth and almost ripped that woman’s arm off.”
Chris said he was barely creeping through the tollbooth when he chatted with the attendant. Having himself been a law-enforcement officer in the past, Chris knew there was no way the trooper could prove he had been speeding because he had not been running radar while standing near the booth.
“So I just asked him how he knew I was speeding,” Chris said.
The situation didn’t get much better from there, according to Chris. Among other things, the couple said the trooper became rude, verbally abusive and refused to talk rationally to them.
Again drawing on his experience in law enforcement, Chris said he made himself stay calm and continued to try and answer the trooper’s questions with respect.
“I wasn’t going to get loud,” he said.
Chris asked the trooper to call a supervisor to the scene because they were having such a hard time communicating. The trooper refused. During the commotion, Christine emerged from the sleeper and sat down in the passenger seat. The trooper started questioning her.
“He wanted to know why I was in the truck, if I had a CDL and if I was logging my time as on-duty,” she said. “I was still upset from the funeral and had been crying. When I tried to answer his questions he told me to quit whining.”
Chris finally broke down and called 9-1-1 and asked for another officer to come to the scene. In the meantime, as with any stop, the trooper asked for the Vanmeerhaeghes’ paperwork – logbook, license, etc.
All the stuff the trooper wanted was in a portfolio – along with some other personal papers. Chris said the trooper took the entire portfolio instead of letting Chris finish getting his personal items out and took it back to the patrol car.
About that time, a sheriff’s deputy showed up and walked up to the passenger side of the couple’s truck. He asked what was going on, and Chris ran down the scenario. Chris said the second officer tried to defuse the situation by talking to the trooper. The trooper said he was going to do a safety inspection.
“The second officer said this was a really touchy situation and that it would be best just to go along with the inspection so we could get out of there,” Chris said.
Chris agreed to the inspection – which he said only consisted of checking the truck’s headlights.
Finally, Chris was called back to the trooper’s patrol car. The sheriff’s deputy accompanied him.
“The trooper told me I had to sign the inspection,” Chris said. “Then I saw that I was cited for speeding and failure to provide paperwork. After I signed it, the trooper jerked it out of my hand and told me he wasn’t going to answer any more of my questions.”
That’s when Chris saw the dash cam and microphone on the trooper’s collar, noting the “little red light” indicating the stop was being recorded.
“After he drove off, I asked the second officer if what I saw meant for sure the stop was recorded,” Chris said.
Indeed it did.
Chris didn’t even pull away from the scene before he wrote out an eight-page complaint. He was able to file it with the Kansas Highway Patrol.
After several months of phone calls – most of which Chris said started with complete disbelief on the part of the Kansas officials – and apparent reviews of the tape and voice recordings from the scene, he eventually got a letter.
“Upon examination of the findings, it has been concluded that your encounter with one of our troopers was not as appropriate as our agency strives to achieve,” the letter stated.
“Our goal is to treat all citizens with respect throughout our enforcement endeavors. The trooper’s conduct will be addressed internally.”
The letter also told Chris that he would receive a revised CVSA inspection report with the noted violations removed. He was supposed to get that in November 2004. Instead he’s received a few voice mails left on his cell phone telling them the revised report would not be issued.
As he continues pursuing the revised report, it’s still apparent from the initial letter that keeping a cool head and knowing how to use the dash cam system to your advantage can even get the attention of law-enforcement officials.
“It’s like cops and robbers out here the way they treat us sometimes,” Christine said. “It’s just nice that for once they knew the other side of the story.”
Swoop and squat
After the sounds of tires screeching and metal crunching subside, the reality starts to set in. You’ve just been in a wreck with a four-wheeler.
After the injured are tended to, the process of finding fault begins.
Too many times, it seems fault automatically falls to the big truck. Dash cams can prove invaluable in these situations, just ask George Borg.
Borg of Chamberburg, PA, was driving east on Interstate 290 in Illinois in fairly heavy traffic on Dec. 19, 2004. That’s when he was involved in a wreck that has every indication of being a textbook example of “swoop and squat.”
According to Amica Insurance, in this particular scam, a driver intentionally “swoops” in front of a vehicle and then “squats” or stops abruptly. Sometimes, an accomplice will box in victims by driving next to their vehicle so they have no choice but to rear-end the squatter.
Even though Borg was issued a ticket, he’s got the dash-cam defense on his side.
Borg forwarded a copy of the events captured by his high-tech video system to OOIDA. In the video, Borg is following the flow of traffic in the center lane of a three-lane interstate. A white SUV swerves in front of Borg’s truck once and slows for no apparent reason, closing the gap between the SUV and Borg’s truck.
“He took away my braking distance when we were in acceleration mode,” Borg said. “He wasn’t allowing me to back out of it – the distance between us and the SUV. So, I had to choose an out.”
Borg knew there was a restriction barring big trucks from the left-hand lane, but he had to choose the lesser of two evils: risk rear-ending the SUV or switch to the left-hand lane.
Borg said the driver of the SUV accelerated ahead of him. When he caught back up to the SUV, the driver swerved toward Borg’s Volvo, stopped and threw his door open. Borg’s video shows him swerving further to the left to avoid the door.
A bit further down the interstate, Borg was able to get back into the center lane.
That’s when the SUV swooped into the center lane, directly in front of Borg’s truck, and slammed on the brakes, although traffic ahead continued to rapidly pulled away. Borg didn’t have the time or space to react and rear-ended the SUV.
A “witness” showed up on the scene and told Borg that he “saw everything” and called Borg a “lunatic.” The only problem is, the witness didn’t know there was a video camera. Once Borg pointed that out, the witness mysteriously disappeared.
The driver of the SUV was also somewhat surprised, according to Borg, to find out the whole series of events had been caught on tape.
The investigating officer moved Borg and the driver of the SUV to a nearby exit ramp and proceeded to look at the video and interview the SUV driver and his passenger. The officer then promptly issued Borg a ticket.
But the ticket wasn’t for following too close, or some other infraction usually accompanying a rear-end collision. Borg was cited for driving in the left lane.
“(The officer) stated that in his professional opinion the accident was my fault because I changed lanes,” Borg said. “And the other driver didn’t get anything.
“This is total outright war. If the Illinois State Police think they are going to get away with that, they’re sadly mistaken.”
Borg has filed complaints with the Illinois State Police.
“It’s discrimination against truckers,” Borg said. “This is selective enforcement. The police officer can’t prove his point.”
As of press time, Borg was in the process of clearing up the citation and gearing up to sue the driver of the SUV for his out-of-pocket expenses and downtime caused by the wreck.
Borg’s ally in all of this is a video showing the entire incident, complete with the eye witness that disappeared once he found out it was all on tape – not exactly a his-word-against-yours situation anymore.
Dash cams can be a high-tech system – like Borg’s – that mounts on the dash and is linked to a digital recording device. Or it can be as low-tech as a camcorder stuck on the dash with duct tape. Either way, these two cases of dash cam defense clearly show that a picture is worth a thousand words – and can be a pretty good eyewitness if you need one.