Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Accident Investigation 101 Part V - Interviewing a Witness

Information from witnesses regarding the accident is vital for finding the accident cause.  There are several types of witnesses who could have information helpful in determining the cause of the accident:

·         Those who actually saw the accident happen or were involved with the accident.

·         Those who came on the scene immediately after the accident.

·         Those who saw events leading to the accident.

·         Those who have information about the specific operation involved, and the equipment involved in the accident.

Schedule a time to meet with each witness.  Because important details can be forgotten as time passes, interviews should be conducted as soon as possible.  Witnesses should be interviewed in private to avoid distraction.  Try to keep witnesses separated until you interview them, so that the observations of one do not affect that of another.  Have a list of questions you will ask each witness.  This will keep the interview organized and helps get the conversation back on track if the witness gets sidetracked.  Important points during the interview process:

·         Use an informal setting for the interview.  If you sit across a desk from the person being interviewed, the witness will be more intimidated and consequently may not provide as much information.

·         Explain to each witness that the investigation is being conducted to try to eliminate the cause of the accident so it doesn’t happen again, and not to place blame.  Let them know that the information they provide will aid greatly in understanding what happened.

·         Use open ended questions; questions that cannot be answered with a “yes” or “no”.  Questions like “Tell me what you saw” are much more likely to uncover valuable details which may not otherwise be recalled.

·         Never lead witnesses, or force them to give information unwillingly.

·         Let the witness proceed at his/her own pace without interfering in the conversation.  Take notes as to the specific details you want to probe further after the witness has finished.  Keep the witness talking about the details of the incident, and do not allow him/her to make conclusions.

·         If a witness does not speak English, interview him/her with an interpreter present.

·         If you need to interview a person who was injured in the accident, it is better to do the interview as soon as possible in the hospital rather than while the person is being cared for by emergency personnel.  Always follow the request of doctors and nurses caring for the patient if you do the interview in the hospital.

The interview process can be a challenge as witnesses may be reluctant to disclose information that they feel will get someone (or themselves) in trouble.  Witnesses are not trained observers.  They may not have been paying close enough attention at the time of the accident to provide enough details to be helpful.  In addition, the witness may have a personal bias for or against the injured party, which may skew their statement.  It is important to always record the witness’s statement as a statement and not as an absolute fact in the investigation.