A Caltrans Engineer Investigates
A Caltrans engineer investigates some of the biggest traffic accidents in Los Angeles.
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You have probably heard or read the news headlines about an automobile versus a school bus in East Los Angeles, a truck fire in a tunnel on the Golden State Freeway (I-5) in Newhall, or an officer-involved traffic accident in Torrance, when incidents like these occur, the Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT) is on its way.
The MAIT which was established in 1979, provides an essential service to the state, as well as local law enforcement agencies to help solve some of the worst and complex traffic accidents. Investigations include the reconstruction of an incident and a study of the factors: environmental, human and mechanical.
Of the eight MAIT teams statewide, a Caltrans Senior Engineer is assigned to seven of these teams. MAITs are composed of five CHP personnel and one Senior Transportation Engineer from Caltrans.
Senior Engineer Warren Tham has worked for Caltrans 22 years and has been a part of the MAIT for 12 years. Tham’s role is to provide engineering expertise.
“As an engineer I never imagined that I would end up doing this kind of work,” said Tham. Tham responds to accident scenes alongside public safety officials. “Originally it was overwhelming because I had never been to an accident scene. I had to learn not to get in the way and where I fit in.”
In addition to Tham’s engineering training, he has attended several hundreds of hours of traffic accident reconstruction courses at the CHP Academy in West Sacramento.
“We all have our own special areas and we each pull from our disciplines,” said CHP Sergeant Don Karol, the lead MAIT officer for the CHP Southern Division. Karol has a degree in Civil Engineering. “Many of the CHP MAIT members have engineering and math degrees,” said Karol.
Many of the accidents that the MAIT responds to can be quite traumatic. One of Tham’s first incidents involved a drunk driver that plowed his vehicle into another car killing all six of the occupants. “You have to detach yourself mentally and emotionally, and put it in a box,” said Tham.
Tham is on-call 24 hours a day. “If I get a call, I get my Caltrans vehicle and head out to the scene,” said Tham.
Tham’s notable incidents include:
In 2002, MAIT responded to a fog related pile up on the Long Beach Freeway (I-710) that involved nearly 200 hundred vehicles. Fortunately, there were no injuries.
In 2003, a MAIT investigation of accident in which an elderly motorist accidentally drove through a closed section of the Santa Monica Farmers Market killing and injuring several patrons.
In 2007, the a commercial truck accident inside a tunnel on the Golden State Freeway (I-5) which resulted in a fire in which three people were killed and several were injured.
Professionally, Tham has also had the opportunity to expand his horizons. “My job has allowed me to work with other engineers outside of my specialty, judicial officers, law enforcement agencies keeping the work from becoming monotonous.”
Although the investigations can be quite challenging, Tham is very positive about his experiences. “I enjoy the unpredictability of my job. From day to day, I never know what I will have to go out to investigate.”