Bill Sommers: An expert in accidents, puzzles

By Dawn Aerts

Iron County Today

CEDAR CITY–It might seem an interesting puzzle, but Bill Sommers had no clear reason or plans to work in law enforcement. But after decades of police work — interrupting armed robberies, rescuing small plane crash survivors snarled up in high voltage wires and responding to countless car accidents, Sommers is still at work doing what he likes best: solving the puzzles at hand.

As a 30-year-veteran officer working in patrol and as a traffic officer for the Ontario, Calif., Police Department, and later, in his work on the accident-investigative team for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, he developed a keen eye and expert skills handling crash-accident data.

“I have to admit that I liked the excitement, and deplored the boredom,” said Sommers, an early member of the Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) program for the Iron County Sheriff’s Department (ICSD) and who has since launched his own accident consultant business he calls Vector Analysis.  

“In general, police work is a zero-to-100 full-throttle in nothing-flat field and you get comfortable with that environment.”  According to Sommers, in his work with the Ontario PD he became known for his accident-analysis in hundreds, if not thousands of incidents.  “I liked the fact that at the beginning of your shift you had no idea of what was about to happen next.”  

Those are the conditions that brought Sommers to handle everything from small plane crash rescue to suspicious car accidents.  And a job that earned him the 1990 Officer of the Year Award at the San Bernardino Department for resuscitating a 9-year old pulled from a pool, during an otherwise routine call.  

But traffic accidents are often part of an unfortunate puzzle.

He can tell you of the time he interrupted an armed-robbery-in-progress or the challenge of compiling complex data in fatal accidents.  In short, rescues, said Sommers, were often being in the right place at the right time as a well-trained officer.  “Some of the incidents can start out pretty common…You don’t expect anything more than a traffic stop or patrol duty, but that can change on a dime,” he said.

But it was Sommer’s role in accident analysis that intrigued him.

Over the years, he has attended a variety of courses that involve traffic reconstruction at Northwestern University, Texas A&M, the Institute of Police Technology (University of North Florida) Cal Poly and at junior colleges.  He has since taught numerous classes at Rio Hondo Junior College, at Chaffee College and served as advanced instructor at the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Regional Academy and has presented courses for military personnel.

So, what happens in the aftermath of a vehicle accident?   According to Sommers, it’s delving into the forensics of vehicle damage, from brakes and motion, to studying speed, the center of mass-impact and assessing the bodily injuries.

In general, he uses a mix of high-tech instruments and devices for an investigation.  “There is an Accelerometer that can gauge the braking system and friction-value of the road using ‘test skids,’” said Sommers. “There are motion sensors that measure vibration or acceleration, how long it takes to stop and the G-forces at work every-tenth-of-a-second.”

He also employs Crash Data Retrieval (CDR), a system that records evidence and raw data. “There is a device in vehicles (those equipped with airbags after 2002) called the ‘black box’ which can evaluate the speed (seconds) up to, and at the moment of impact — whether brakes were used, if seatbelts were in place and even tire pressure.”

Sommers also works with Lidar, a laser-scan technology that measures distance to a target within one-half mile and 1/10th of a foot.  “This is a tool that can sight and illuminate a target with pulsed laser, the differences in wave-length return time, (driving to or away) and then, produce digital-3D-diagrams to scale.”

In Iron County, deputies do the initial on-site assessment of traffic-accidents, but Sommers is adept at the supplemental reports that involve research, data compilation and the algebra-based calculations to support the findings.  “In my business, I handle analysis for the legal and insurance industry,” said Sommers, “but it’s this technical process I’ve come to enjoy.”

Over the years, he has had more than a few former survivors, students and colleagues who know him as the officer who first responded.  “One minute I may be watching Jeopardy on television, and in the next moment I may get a call to help a guy who appears unconscious in his car – incidents that require anything from administering first-aid, CPR, or Naloxone, to simple chest compression.”

In his VIPS role, Sommers finds himself on patrol or at home monitoring the police radio with reports that spill over into his day:  local emergencies, news on the outbreak of wildfires, or how local law enforcement and fire department staff and volunteers are handling the issues they respond to 24-7.

“People remember certain points in their life,” said Sommers of police work. “For me it’s about figuring out stuff, the things that may seem difficult to understand:  So where do you start at the scene of an accident or a crime?  Solving those puzzles are what I most enjoy.”

Photo:  Bill Sommers, a member of the Iron County Sheriff’s Department, Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) team has worked in law enforcement for decades in routine patrol, traffic investigation and analysis and now operates a private business called Vector Analysis which uses high-tech equipment, analysis, programs and devices to calculate and measure crash data. He instructs students at various colleges and has served as an advanced instructor for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Academy and for specialized military personnel.

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