Sudden Impact

It was dark and slick when the accident occurred, but not nearly as dark and slick as it was when she tried to get to the bottom of it

The accident he had with my Sentra also stemmed from a car improperly crossing an intersection, according to Sinkes's accident report. And Chapman again was not cited for improper driving. He should have been.

To determine just how fast Chapman was driving when he hit my car, and to provide any other information about the likely cause of the accident, New Times hired Miles Moss, a respected traffic engineer who investigates contributing causes of pedestrian and vehicular accidents, and who has worked for numerous attorneys as well as nearly every law enforcement agency in Dade County, including the Miami Beach Police Department. Moss and his associate, Robert Wyman, brought their customized van to the accident scene, measured angles, calculated radii on the roadway, and produced a great deal of relevant data.

In direct contradiction to the accident report filed by Officer Sinkes, Moss concluded in a written summary of his findings that "Chapman vehicle was probably exceeding the speed limit, traveling too fast for conditions, and probably lost control due to excessive speed." At the moment of impact with my car, Chapman was traveling 41 to 43 miles per hour, Moss found. But he must have been going much faster than that as he approached the intersection at 23rd Street, some 160 feet away, and slammed on his brakes to avoid colliding with the mystery car. "If Mr. Chapman locked his brakes prior to the intersection of 23 St. to avoid impacting another vehicle, as indicated in the accident report, then when braking begins, speed of Chapman vehicle was probably 62-64 mph (minimum)," Moss wrote. The maximum safe speed on that road when wet? Moss calculated it to be 24 to 25 miles per hour.

Florida motor vehicle laws state that a driver going the speed limit can still be cited for speeding if special conditions (such as a wet roadway) make it dangerous to travel that fast. And those who don't take all circumstances into consideration can be found guilty of careless driving.

Moss determined that Chapman was "probably in violation" of three Florida statutes: speeding, not taking into account special driving hazards, and careless driving. Despite that, he wouldn't put the blame on Sinkes for not citing Chapman. "An investigating officer isn't going to be able to be trained to estimate how fast he was going," Moss asserted. But he did fault the practice of having Miami Beach police officers investigate accidents involving one of their own, a common procedure among law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Moss doesn't see why local agencies can't agree on reciprocal arrangements for such accidents. Under a system like that, Moss speculated, "They might still show a little favoritism, but not nearly as much."

Don't look for any policy changes in Miami Beach, however. Major Rocco DeLeo, supervisor of Miami Beach's patrol division, said reciprocal agreements with other law enforcement agencies have never been seriously considered because they wouldn't be feasible and they aren't necessary. "I can't afford to be sending people out of the city," DeLeo protested. "If you have a problem with an accident that an officer has investigated, we look into it. We scrutinize our own a lot more than we do the public. I've reviewed accidents involving officers and I've asked questions I wouldn't even look at if there hadn't been an officer involved." Every on-duty officer who has an accident goes before a police review board, which determines fault and possible penalties, DeLeo added. Off-duty officers involved in wrecks, however, are treated as civilian members of the public.

The Monday following Thanksgiving I found Chapman at the station before he began his shift. The insurance information on the accident report was wrong, I told him. Could he clear it up? He was insured, he emphasized. In fact, someone from the insurance company had just called to come out and look at the Honda. It was a brand-new policy, he explained, and he had handed the wrong card to Officer Sinkes the night of the accident. But, he added, he returned to the station the next day with the correct information. (As of this past Thursday, according to department officials, no changes had been made to the report.) After making a phone call, Chapman gave me the name and number of a local insurance agency, First Insurance Group, and he urged me to call him if I had any more problems.

That encounter was only the beginning of the problems, but repeated efforts to contact Chapman again were fruitless. The agent at First Insurance, Martha, informed me that Chapman was named on a new policy held by Carmen Lopez and that the accident had been reported to Lopez's insurance company a few days earlier. The policy was so new, in fact, that a policy number had yet to be assigned. The number Chapman had provided for the accident report was a binder number, a guarantee of coverage. She advised me to call the company, U.S. Security.

So eleven days after the wreck, it was back to U.S. Security for another dose of frustration. No policy number, no possibility of processing a claim, regardless of the fact that Chapman said he'd already been contacted by the company about his Honda. Assigning a policy number could take more than two weeks.

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