The way people think and speak about time is a recurring issue in personal injury lawsuits, particularly those involving auto and truck accidents. All drivers are constantly required to judge speed and distance simply to get where they are going. This leads to the perception that drivers and witnesses can accurately estimate time, speed and distance. However, scientific studies by professional accident reconstructionists confirm that eyewitnesses are most often wrong when they try to estimate these factors.
Often, people speak in a very non-literal way about time. A minute is seen as a very short period of time by most people. A minute is about 1/1400th of a day. When a witness says something took “about a minute” they very rarely mean that it took 60 seconds. More frequently, they mean “not very long.”
This can be extremely important in intersection cases. It may arise in the context of how long the plaintiff or defendant had to see and react to oncoming traffic. Or where a vehicle was when a light changed, or how long it took for a vehicle to travel from point A to point B.
Witnesses never realize that when they are asked to estimate time, it is rarely simply because the questioner wants to know about how long something took. You see, time/speed/distance is really just a three-sided math problem. If you know any two elements, finding the third is a simple calculation.
For example, 65 miles per hour is 95.3 feet per second. So a witness who says they first saw the other vehicle a quarter-mile (1320 feet) away and also says the time from perception to impact was 10-15 seconds was traveling between 65 and 85 miles per hour. If they also said their speed was 50 m.p.h., that witness is wrong about some or all of the three elements. If done correctly, it is easy on cross-examination to make a witness’s testimony about any one of the three look wildly inaccurate by doing simple (well, not for me- I use a calculator) math.
I won a trial in Frederick County last summer by cross-examining the defendant driver on these points. She testified about where her starting point was, where the collision happened, and how long it took her to travel between the two. Using a scale map of the intersection and simple math, I could argue that for any of her testimony to be correct, she would have had to be going triple the speed limit.
This is yet another reason why client preparation is important. A properly prepared witness should not be vulnerable to cross-examination on these issues. I always stress to clients that they should never attempt to estimate time, speed, or distance unless they are absolutely sure. Normally, I make them sit and watch while I time off 15 seconds on my watch, to show just how long that is. Then I explain the math and instruct them that if they mean “a very short time” the answer is “I don’t know exactly how long but it was a very short time” instead of guessing 15 seconds. Because that guess is likely to make it easy to make other, perhaps totally accurate, testimony look completely wrong.