Newton's Laws of Motion: The Physics of Fraud

By Brad Balentine

Ever wish you had paid more attention in your high school physics class? Who knew that there would be more worth knowing about Isaac Newton than his having a fig cookie named after him. Okay, so that's just a rumor but there was definitely more to know that many of us would gladly dive into later in life.

Sir Isaac Newton is one of history's most important and influential scientists. Among his numerous accomplishments is the formulation and description of the laws of motion. Today, over 300 years later, Newton's Three Laws of Motion are still major underlying principles in the subject of physics.

In any automobile accident, these laws are immutable -they are always in force. Fortunately for those of us who investigate suspected fraudulent claims, it's safe to say that the vast majority of people we investigate do not have a college degree in physics and probably didn't even pay attention in high school. Thus, the details they give in their statements are often at variance with what could have actually happened. Therefore, it can be helpful to be familiar with these laws, and keep them in mind when asking questions about the movement of vehicles and bodies in an automobile accident. These laws act as silent witnesses that provide a form of testimony to help you assess the accuracy, and perhaps even the honesty, of a statement.

When people are genuinely in an accident, they will usually provide an accurate description of the motion of their bodies during the event, as well was the motion of the vehicle. If they are faking it, they are likely to guess at what would have happened, and such guesses are often wrong. Having a familiarity with the Laws of Motion aids the fraud investigator and can save money in undue payouts.

Newton's First Law of Motion

The first law of motion can be stated as: An object at rest tends to stay at rest and an object in motion tends to stay in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an external force. Using this law, one can learn something about the dynamics of an automobile accident.

According to Law One, the body of an occupant in a stationary automobile will tend to stay at rest. That's no problem for the occupant, until another car comes along and hits the stationary vehicle, such as in a rear-end collision at a stoplight. The striking vehicle will tend to keep moving forward, and cause the stationary vehicle to also start moving forward. The hips and lower body of our unfortunate occupant are strapped in the seat and thus will move forward with the vehicle, while the occupant's head and upper torso, which are not as constrained, will tend to remain where they were. The net effect is that the occupant's head will appear to be thrown toward the rear of the vehicle when in actuality the car is being thrust forward.

Based on these dynamics, we can establish a rule that in any auto accident, the upper body and head of the occupant will be "thrown" exactly toward the point of impact. As an example, if a car is hit from the right side in a side-impact collision, the occupants in that vehicle will be thrown toward the striking vehicle to their right. Of course, the occupants of the striking vehicle will be thrown forward as their point of impact would be at the front of that car.

Many times when an adjuster takes a statement from someone who claims to have been in a side impact auto accident they are told that they were thrown forward by the impact. The stories get even more amusing when multiple occupants in the same car each give a different version of which way their bodies were thrown.

Countless doctors bemoan how their poor patients were thrown violently forward by a rear-end impact. In reality, the rear impact would send the occupants' bodies into their cushioned seats and headrests as the primary motion. Unfortunately for the doctor, the truth of this situation makes for a less than dramatic medical report.

When taking a statement, it helps to know the points of impact on each vehicle and to ask detailed questions about the motions of each body. If you keep this rule in mind as you go along, you can quickly see whether their version of the facts agrees with Mr. Newton.

Newton's Second Law of Motion

The second law of motion can be stated as: Force equals mass multiplied by acceleration. This law is evident when we observe that although a bullet doesn't weigh very much, it certainly transmits a great deal of force when discharged at a high speed from a gun. Similarly, a freight train has an enormous amount of mass, but it has no force when it's at a standstill. A car has a lot of mass. If it is moving at any sort of speed, it will impart a significant amount of force in any collision.

In one example, an attorney was obviously unaware of this law when he elected to represent a burly school bus driver who claimed significant soft-tissue injuries. His client's school bus was rear-ended by a small Toyota. The Toyota was traveling at a low speed, sustained only minor damage and its driver was not injured. Thus, we have the relatively small mass of the Toyota, compared with the much larger mass of the bus, plus the factor of low speed. Taking all this into consideration, there would not be much force transmitted to the school bus, according to this second law of motion. Therefore, it's hard to believe that this claimant was injured, especially since none of the children sitting near the rear of the bus sustained any injuries-despite sitting much closer to the point of impact, and without benefit of seatbelts.

Newton's Third Law of Motion

The third law of motion can be stated as: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Knowledge of this law is useful in the analysis of photographs of vehicles supposedly in the same accident. If two vehicles are of comparable size, then the extent of damage to each one should be roughly equivalent.

If you take the time to do a side-by-side comparison of vehicle photographs in an accident claim, you may be surprised at what you find. In one case, a pickup truck allegedly rear-ended a Chevy van. The rear of the van was flat in shape, as are most vans, and had little visible damage. The damage to the front of the pick-up was only in the center of the bumper and it ran from the top of the hood to the bottom of the bumper, about two feet wide. Essentially, it was a perfect imprint of a telephone pole. You could almost imagine seeing the reverse lettering of "Property of AT&T" embedded in the dented grill of the truck. Anyone could see that there was no "equal and opposite reaction" in this case. There was no pole shaped protrusion on the back of the van that could have accounted for the shape of the damage to the truck. It was almost disappointing that they didn't try harder to fool us. Unfortunately, we regularly see cases which are almost this blatant. Possibly they figure that too many of us just won't bother to thoroughly examine each case.

One area that can sometimes be overlooked in taking statements involves the movement of the vehicles in a collision after the impact. Experience shows that when people are making up a story about an accident, they don't work out all the details. They will often have a picture in their mind about how the "accident" happened. They will know what street they were supposedly driving on, where the other vehicle was coming from, and where the vehicles collided. As far as they are concerned, that's all the story they will need. They don't often think about how the vehicles would move after impact.

If a person genuinely experiences an accident, they will generally be able to give an accurate account of the movement of the vehicles after impact. A person who is making things up might be surprised and become nervous about such questions. Chances are they have not thought ahead of time about all the questions they would be asked. This is especially true in the case of side impact accidents.

In one side impact case, the person claimed that both vehicles stopped dead immediately after impact. Of course, that would be completely inconsistent with Newton's First Law of Motion. In actuality, both vehicles would tend to continue moving.

In another case, a claimant was in a vehicle which had been struck on the side. When asked what direction her vehicle went after the impact, she claimed that it continued going straight. She "didn't remember" what the other vehicle did after the impact. Based on actual crash tests of side impact collisions, a vehicle hit on its left side would start moving to the right while also continuing to move forward. This accident showed the result of both cars having an equal and opposite reaction to the impact while they also tended to stay in motion.

In one such test, the car hit on the left side immediately started moving sideways to its right while also turning counter-clockwise as it moved across the pavement. It ended up with both cars facing each other, nose to nose, about two car lengths away from the original point of impact. The nose of the car that was hit in the side was exactly facing toward the spot where the original impact occurred. I doubt that anyone would be able to accurately describe such a scene unless they had experienced it themselves. And, of course, that's the whole point.

I would hope that if Sir Isaac Newton were alive today, he would be pleased to see the myriad of uses that have been found for his discoveries, including fighting insurance fraud. I'm not sure what he would think about the fig cookie thing, though.

Brad Balentine is director- Special Investigations Unit for DMA Claims Services. He has over 20 years experience as a fraud investigator and manager. Mr. Balentine is a licensed private investigator and certified as a continuing education instructor. He can be reached at bbalentine@ dmaclaims.com.

Brad Balentine is director- Special Investigations Unit for DMA Claims Services. He has over 20 years experience as a fraud investigator and manager. Mr. Balentine is a licensed private investigator and certified as a continuing education instructor.

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