Back to Basics – Driver Interviews


Back to Basics: Interviewing

Interviewing the driver of a vehicle involved in a fatal collision is not an easy interview and takes some considerable planning if a good product is to be achieved from the interview process.

How many investigators carry out a digitally recorded interview following a fatal collision? I guess the majority of answers here will be most if not all? However, how many of these interviews take place immediately after the collision (same day / within 24 hours). There are scenarios where initial accounts are taken and verbally recorded interviews take place further down the line.

Many investigators from a roads policing background who are interviewing motorists daily following non fatal collisions will quite possibly find themselves obtaining a brief account of ‘ tell me what happened ‘ recorded contemporaneously, confirming they were the driver and some brief questions over ownership of vehicle etc. An investigation may follow and a further interview may be required down the line depending on the investigation.

Due to this regular behaviour in how investigators deal with these instances at the road side in this manner it is somewhat conditioning them to deal with a fatal collision or potentially fatal collision in the same way. We have often seen when taking on a fatal collision investigation this sort of interview and still do now in cases we review. A short roadside interview straight away and a recorded interview sometimes months down the line.

Having completed interview training of tier 2 and 3 advanced suspect interviewing and having been on both sides of the fence – roads policing investigator and detective investigator it is apparent that in hindsight the thought of following a fatal collision an initial interview only consists of the question ‘tell me what happened’ with no further questioning and only recorded contemporaneously is a little bit frightening as to what is being missed as adding value to the investigation as a whole.

Suspects are at that their most vulnerable immediately following the commission of an offence so it seems to make sense to try and absorb as much information from a suspect as possible immediately after the incident and to then be able to go on and test it for its truthfulness. Having conducted hundreds of interviews with drivers following a fatal collision and done it in a variety of ways we cannot emphasise the best interview product that has been produced for an investigation are those where the drivers have been interviewed immediately following the collision and it has been verbally recorded. Whether it has been the result of an arrest or voluntary interview it is just imperative to be able to create the opportunity to ask detailed and thorough questions from the driver so that you can go on to test the version of events in the investigation and make sure you have an untainted account from the individual as soon as possible after the incident.

This is not to say that on some occasions this may prompt a no comment interview as you have little information to disclose and legal advice may be to no comment, however in our experience a no comment interview in this scenario is less common than an interviewee that provides an account. If it is a no comment interview at least you have asked the questions and can re assess your interview strategy.

This first interview can be and should be searching of the interviewee and effectively should be covering a number of interview topics that we feel are relevant at that first interview. This requires an ability to rapport build with your interviewee and can involve lots of planning to ensure you manage the process to minimise the effect on the interviewee who could be interacting with the police for the very first time. This can be managed whether it’s an arrest or voluntary attendee. It just takes a little more effort and communication with staff in cell areas or help desks (or whatever they are termed these days) with interview facilities. Fitness to detain and interview checks can also be built into a pre-interview plan to ensure there are no issues with the interview process on medical grounds.

Once an initial account is obtained in detail then as an investigator you can go on to test the account given and if it has been a truthful account there may not be a need to carry out a second interview if everything that the person has told you is truthful and consistent with other material.

The draw backs of not interviewing straight away are that you may not get the same level of detail and you give a suspect the time to reflect and possibly speak to witnesses and you lessen the chance of getting an untainted account. Last week we wrote a blog regarding obtaining 999 call recordings and a great example of the point we make here is in one case we recovered that call from a driver involved in a fatal collision and when he was being asked questions to locate the incident for the ambulance to be directed to he disclosed a garage he had been to earlier in the evening as a landmark to the operator. This is a classic example of a suspect being at their most vulnerable immediately after the commission of an offence as less than 12 hours later in a police interview he never mentioned the garage in his pre incident movements despite being asked for a detailed account of them. CCTV enquiries at this garage were the downfall of this suspect and that nugget of information in an initial ‘interview’ albeit for different reasons revealed useful investigative information and this sort of information will also come out of early in depth full recorded interviews immediately after the collision.

I hear some reasons for not doing an interview straight away as the driver is not in a fit state as in shock etc and it will be too stressful, then in these cases it may be advantageous to delay but you can access medical assessments to have a proper opinion on it and safeguard you in the process. Sometimes in the long term it could be better for the interviewee to have the account ‘downloaded’ and not have to worry about an interview further down the line and sometimes people in this position just want to get it off their chest straight away. Other experts in the field of cognitive interviewing may say that it is better to interview later following a traumatic event as a better recall may be experienced further down the line.

Ultimately you are dealing with a person that may be criminally responsible for killing somebody and it should be in the best interests of the investigation for all parties concerned to try and gather as much information as you can and with the driver of a vehicle you have a key significant witness to the events. If you were treating the driver as a witness (another blog topic in itself as to whether some drivers should be a witness v suspect) then would you only ask the one question of them? This is doubtful, it would be a probing interview for as much information as possible and as soon as possible.

In a world where we seem to communicate face to face less and less this is one area of communication where serious consideration needs to be given to doing it early into an investigation and definitely face to face with recording equipment in order to maximise the investigative opportunities in a serious collision investigation and therefore have a better and robust product where all the questions are attempted to be answered as to what happened.

This is touching on the golden hour principle which we will take a look at in the next blog.