Analysis of December accident that severely injured Chloe Rombach shows split-second decisions often key in determining outcome of such tragedies



Last modified: Saturday, April 18, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — In a car accident, the outcome often depends on split-second decisions and reactions.

In the case of the Dec. 9 accident in which 22-year-old Chloe Rombach was struck by a car while crossing Bridge Street on a rainy night, the driver’s decisions and reactions occurred after it was too late to avoid hitting and dragging her, according to the police report.



Kenzie Kimble-Badgett, 19, of Easthampton, who will not be charged in connection with the accident, told police that night that she did not see Rombach until after she felt the impact of striking her — and she wasn’t even sure she had hit a person.

Kimble-Badgett told police she pulled over “immediately,” but her car still traveled 136 feet before it stopped. Although Kimble-Badgett did not know it at the time, Rombach’s jacket had caught in the front of the car, so she had been dragged those 136 feet.

Rombach’s parents contend those136 feet likely worsened their daughter’s injuries. Rombach suffered a serious brain injury, among other injuries, and it is unclear if she will ever regain full consciousness.

Her father, Edward Rombach, said if Kimble-Badgett had stopped sooner, Chloe may not have been so severely hurt. “Anyone with doubts would be quickly disabused of them if they volunteered to be dragged even a few feet underneath a car,” he said in an email this week.

Michael Allard , the Northampton police officer who investigated the crash with the Northwestern district attorney’s office, determined that Kimble-Badgett was not criminally negligent. Kimble-Badgett and her family through their attorney declined to speak to the Gazette for this story.

However, the accident report prepared by Allard, sheds some light on the crash and its immediate aftermath. Allard, who is trained in accident reconstruction, declined to discuss this accident specifically, but his report listed rain, darkness, glare and Rombach’s dark clothing as factors that delayed Kimble-Badgett’s response.

Interviews with two accident reconstruction experts also revealed a list of conditions and factors that could have influenced the driver’s ability to see the pedestrian, and may also have contributed to her being unsure whether she hit someone.

Accident reconstruction expert Bobby Jones Jr. of Nashville, Tennessee, said the factors that can influence a driver’s ability to react and the car’s ability to stop range from the driver’s age to the lighting of the road. Those are among the things police and the district attorney’s office consider when deciding whether to file charges, and could also be factors in the outcome of any civil lawsuit, he said.

Jones said that without knowing all the details of the accident, bu allowing for generally accepted reaction times, he could only estimate that a driver traveling 30 mph who had slammed on the brakes would likely come to a stop at around 93 feet. A motorist who braked quickly, without slamming on the brakes, would probably take about 143 feet to stop, Jones said.

According to Allard’s report, which estimated Kimble-Badgett’s speed at between 25 mph and 30 mph, her car came to a stop 136 feet from the edge of the crosswalk.

Accident report

Based on the police report, Kimble-Badgett was driving west on Bridge Street (Route 9) in fairly heavy traffic just before 5:20 p.m. Dec. 9. It was dark, raining and windy, and she had her headlights and windshield wipers on. Kimble-Badgett told police that she was looking forward, and had been thinking that the weather and visibility were poor.

Dec. 9 Accident Analysis



Kimble-Badgett told police that she then felt something hit her car. According to what she told officers at the scene and in an interview at the police station, she saw “a standing figure” that rolled onto the hood of the car and into the windshield. Then the figure disappeared, and she pulled over to the side of the road.

“No one was stopping and no one was acting like anything happened,” she told police, so she “wasn’t sure what happened.” Kimble-Badgett frantically tried to call her mother twice, she told police, to tell her she thought she hit a person. A witness informed her that there was a body under her car, and she called 911 about 2½ minutes after the accident, according to the report.

Two other witnesses who gave statements to police said that rain and fog made visibility poor. One said she did not see the pedestrian until the moment she was hit, and the other said he did not know it was a person until after he saw Kimble-Badgett pull her car over to the side of the road.

“I don’t even know how I could have stopped it,” Kimble-Badgett said when police asked her if she thought she could have prevented the accident by slamming on her brakes. She said she started braking after the accident, because she only noticed Rombach at the moment of impact.

“It was pouring rain, everything was just glare, it was pitch black,” Kimble-Badgett said. “I just didn’t realize what had happened until it was over.”

Police noted that there were no signs that Kimble-Badgett was impaired by drugs or alcohol or that she had been distracted while driving. They used forensic software to confirm that she was not using her cell phone at the time of the accident, according to the report.

Allard wrote in his report that at the time of the accident there was heavy rain and northerly wind of between 10 mph and 23 mph with gusts up to 31 mph. The sun had set about 10 minutes before the accident occurred, and the road was lit with street lights, lights from buildings, and headlights.

Based on damage to the car, Allard estimated the vehicle was traveling at 25 to 30 mph. “An estimated speed of 25-30 mph is consistent with the stopping distance of the vehicle (including the perception response time)” he wrote.

Allard wrote that, in his opinion, the rain, glare of headlights, and Rombach’s dark clothing were all factors that delayed Kimble-Badgett’s perception response.

Perception response time

In an interview with the Gazette on Monday, Allard described perception response time as the amount of time it takes a driver to do four things: perceive a threat, identify the threat, decide on a response, and physically react.

Allard said officers trained in accident reconstruction generally assume that the perception response time is 1.5 or 1.6 seconds during the day, and 2.5 seconds or more at night.

If a person sees a trash can blow into the road on a clear day, the distance that the car travels before it can stop is determined both by the perception response time, and the time it takes the brakes to mechanically stop the vehicle. Theoretically, a car going 30 mph would travel 67.5 feet before the driver touched the brakes.

Jones said that in accidents where the moment of perception is the moment of impact, the response time is cut down to between three-quarters of a second and one second.

Police and accident reconstruction experts such as Jones use formulas to determine, among other things, how quickly a car can stop after the driver begins braking. The variables to consider include how hard the driver is braking, the condition of the road, the quality of the brakes, and the friction between the tires and the road.

Jones said that because he did not know all the details of the crash, he cannot account for all variables. However, based on the stopping distance of 136 feet, a reaction time of three-quarters of a second, and the assumption that the driver was braking hard, but not slamming on the brakes, the vehicle in that scenario is likely traveling 30.4 mph, according to his figuring.

He said the stopping distance in this accident is “right in line” with what he would have estimated. It would take around 5.36 seconds for a car traveling about 30 mph to come to a stop in 136 feet if the driver only reacted after the point of impact.

If the car was traveling slower, around 25 mph, the total stopping distance with quick “non-emergency braking” is about 97 feet, he said. That includes 27.5 feet while the driver was reacting and 69.4 while the brakes were slowing the car.

The science of stopping

There are numerous factors that can delay a driver’s reaction time, stretching it from one second to several. In some cases, that delay can be critical.

Some delays are caused by negligence, such as texting while driving, but many are not. For instance, younger drivers generally react faster than older drivers, but those with less experience driving also tend to react more slowly, Jones said. “Everyone is different,” he said.

Kimble-Badgett told police that she was unsure whether she had struck a pedestrian, and Jones said that confusion can significantly delay reaction times.

A loud noise — possibly one caused by the impact — could also confuse the driver, Jones said.

The brightness of oncoming headlights can also cause temporary night blindness because a driver’s eyes have to readjust to the darkness after the light passes. “If a vehicle travels past you with their lights on low-beam, there’s a very low chance you’d experience anything significant — split-seconds, maybe,” Jones said of the temporary blindness. Pedestrians can experience the same thing, he said.

When those lights shine onto a windshield through drops of water, the light refracts through the water and can create glare, he said.

Rombach was wearing black pants and a green jacket, which police noted in the report became darker because it was wet. Allard said that while some joggers and bicyclists wear bright colors to be easier for drivers to spot, what really catches a driver’s eye is contrast between different shades, colors or patterns.

Allard said that pedestrians might think that if they can see a car, the driver can see them. But he wrote in his report that studies have shown that under normal lighting conditions, the average pedestrian sees the oncoming vehicle at a distance of about 340 feet, while the driver usually does not detect the pedestrian even at 125 feet.

Drivers’ expectations also come into play, Allard said. Motorists are accustomed to seeing people in crosswalks on Main Street in downtown Northampton, but are not as prepared to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks outside the center, where there are fewer people walking, he said.

On Dec. 9, many factors combined when Rombach was hit in the crosswalk on Bridge Street in what Kimble-Badgett’s attorney, Jesse Adams of Northampton, described as a “terrible tragedy.”

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.


 


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