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Forensic engineers investigate materials, products, structures or components that fail or do not operate or function as intended; these defects or failures often cause damage to property, injury, or even death. Their reports and judgments about the causes of failure are used as evidence in personal-injury lawsuits, contract or warranty disputes, and patent and copyright infringement litigation, in addition to criminal cases. Forensic engineers have played a key role investigating some of the major accidents and terrorist acts in recent history, ranging from both space shuttle disasters to engineering studies conducted to determine why both towers of the World Trade Center collapsed so quickly on September 11, 2001, and the I-35W bridge collapse in Minnesota.
Forensic engineers are often called in to help determine what caused a building to collapse, a train or plane to crash, or even a car accident, particularly if some component of the machinery involved is suspected of having failed. They interview witnesses or, ideally, the people who were operating the suspected faulty machinery, and they often reconstruct the accident scene to get a better idea of what happened. Forensic engineers examine machine parts that have failed. They use microscopes and magnifying glasses to determine whether corrosion, fatigue, sabotage, or some other factor was the reason for the failure. Accidents involving fire are especially challenging, since critical evidence is often destroyed, but in many instances the forensic engineer can shed light on whether a gas leak, an electrical problem, a cooking accident, or even arson may have been the cause.
Manufacturers of appliances, consumer products, medical devices, and even hand tools use the talents of forensic engineers to locate possible causes of failure in their products. Many defects in these items are eliminated through testing in the factory before the product is placed on the market, but if some unforeseen failure comes to light, particularly one that can place the user of the product in danger, the product may be recalled or even completely withdrawn from the market and the forensic engineer will be asked to answer, as quickly as possible, the question, "What happened?" Examples of this include artificial hearts, heart valves, breast implants, brake systems, airbags, and power drills.
One of the most popular specialties for forensic engineers is traffic accident investigation. Traffic accident investigators analyze the cause and circumstances of traffic accidents, usually when an accident is suspected to be the result of negligence.
Traffic accident investigators try to determine the cause of traffic accidents. They examine the circumstances of an accident in order to determine why it occurred, using any physical evidence from the accident, testimony of people who witnessed the accident, reports prepared by law enforcement officials, and other types of documentation, such as diagrams, photographs, and videos of the accident scene. In their analysis, accident investigators take into account such factors as the weather (Was it clear, rainy, snowy, or foggy at the time of the accident?), time of day (Did the accident occur during daylight hours, or when it was dark?), and physical condition of the street and surrounding area (Was the street relatively smooth, or was it filled with potholes, or was it a poorly maintained gravel road? Was the surface slippery due to ice, rain, or the presence of a foreign substance? Was it well-lit, or dark and shadowy?). Then they take into consideration variables such as any known or potential equipment malfunctions (such as faulty brakes on one of the vehicles, or malfunctioning gates at a railroad crossing), the speed of the vehicle(s) involved in the accident, the severity of impact, and the damage or injuries that occurred as a result of the accident. Using these types of materials and knowledge, accident investigators analyze what happened. Oftentimes they physically reconstruct the accident in order to gain a better idea of what occurred; to do this, they typically obtain like or similar vehicles and recreate the circumstances of the accident.
When traffic accident investigators are finished with their investigations, they compile thorough reports that include their findings and the conclusions they have drawn from their analysis. Perhaps a crash between two vehicles was the result of a faulty traffic signal, or because one of the vehicles hit a patch of ice on the road. Or maybe the driver of one of the vehicles was intoxicated and did not stop in time when the traffic light turned red at a busy intersection.
Forensic engineers must be very careful and detailed in carrying out their investigations and with creating their reports, which are frequently used as evidence in both civil litigation and in criminal cases. Their work can also be utilized outside of the legal system: for example, insurance companies rely on the skills of forensic engineers in settling insurance claims. To help others understand their analysis of an accident, forensic engineers may provide more than just a written account of what happened and the conclusions they’ve reached: a written report might be supplemented by illustrations, models, or computer animations. Forensic engineers are often asked to testify in court to explain their findings.