10 helpful tips for the most effective accident witness interviewing

By Graham Braithwaite - January 30, 2018

As an accident investigator, interviewing accident witnesses is one of the key ways of gathering vital information, which will allow you to piece together what happened and why in the aftermath of an incident.

Accident witness interviewing can be complex at the best of times. So, here are 10 helpful tips to guide you.

1. Make your objectives really clear

You may know exactly why you are here, but the person you are about to interview may have different ideas. If you introduce yourself as an "investigator" or say that you are "investigating" then this will have an impact. These can be frightening terms, especially for someone who fears they may have done something wrong or could have done more to prevent something from happening. Don’t be surprised by questions like: "Will I lose my job over this?"; or even: "it was my fault, wasn’t it?" If you can anticipate them, you will stand a much better chance of responding positively. Don’t promise things that are not within your gift, but do try to be honest with people.

2. Remember it’s a two-way conversation

While you may think you are asking the questions, the reality is that any interview is two-way. The witness is looking for clues from you as to whether they are saying the right thing or not. Think about how you react to information that may surprise, shock or even amuse you. Will your facial expression give things away? Will the fact that you have made notes about some things and not others give the witness a clue? While you may wish to show you are actively listening, be careful not to be seen to take sides or move from empathy to sympathy. If you get this wrong then the risk is you will unwittingly start to manipulate your witness’ testimony.

3. Don’t lead the witness

Most investigators are acutely aware that a leading question – one which directs the witness towards a particular answer – is to be avoided. However, it is especially easy to fall into the trap when trying to be helpful to a reluctant or shy witness or when you are searching for corroborating evidence. If you find yourself starting questions with words like "would you say that…" or "do you agree that…", then you may be falling into the trap. Try and avoid any long questions – you aim is to get them talking and for you to listen.

4. Don’t ask multiple questions at once

Plenty of investigators end up asking multiple questions at once and inevitably only getting answers to some of them. This can happen when the interviewer is feeling nervous or feels that the witness is not necessarily understanding the question. Ask simple questions about one thing at a time and listen to the answer. Otherwise the witness may become confused or choose to answer the easy question even if the more interesting information was likely to come from one of your other questions.

5. Don’t try and trick

Witnesses get things wrong for all sorts of reasons, most of which are unintentional. If they make a mistake then try and clarify it rather than use it against them. Plenty of people don’t know their left from their right or can’t tell you a procedure they do regularly – it doesn’t mean they are at fault. Make it easy for people – maybe a model, picture or even a visit to the scene can help someone to describe what they experienced. Most witnesses haven’t done anything wrong and if they have, there is the greatest likelihood that they didn’t do it on purpose!

6. Listen very carefully

Patience is paramount if you want to get the most out of a witness. Try to limit the amount of time you talk and listen to them instead. Your role is to get the witness to the point that they will freely recall their observations, so make sure you let them speak. Try to avoid interrupting, even if you feel the witness is heading off on a tangent – you may be surprised what comes up and you are also less likely to insult them. Find a way to show you are interested – it can be your facial expression, an open hand or simple words like "and then?" or "go on".

7. Be flexible

Investigators may find that interviews need to happen with little or no notice - for example, when a witness presents themselves at an accident. Similarly, it may also be that a witness is remote and may need to be interviewed over the telephone or even through an email exchange. Being able to adapt is important as otherwise memories may fade or witnesses become less willing. Be prepared to change direction and style during the interview too if the witness starts to struggle or provides information that you weren’t expecting. Make sure you’ve budgeted enough time for surprises.

8. Consider the witness’ needs too

While some witnesses will be only too keen to speak at great length (even about things they haven’t actually witnessed!), some will find the experience tough. If a witness is nervous then they may give very short answers, so find a way to put them at ease. Maybe they need reassurance about the process or something as simple as a glass or water or toilet break? They may have questions of you about the process or what will happen next, so may sure you give them an opportunity to ask it. If it helps them to have someone with them, then this may be entirely appropriate as long as everyone knows the ground rules and they aren’t also a witness.

9. Don’t try and emulate your favourite television detective

Whether you admire the understated style of Peter Falk’s character in Columbo or the more aggressive approach epitomised by DCI Gene Hunt in Ashes to Ashes, try not to fall into the trap of emulating their performance. Be you. If you are trying too hard to be someone else then you are leaving yourself less capacity to listen and think. The best way to improve your performance is to practice and get feedback. If you interview as a pair of investigators then make time after the interview to ask for feedback from your colleague.

10. Always leave time for "one more thing"

Apple’s Steve Jobs was legendary for the "one more thing" that often used to herald an exciting new product release. While the content was always a surprise, the fact that there was something the audience wasn’t expecting became the norm. Your witness may have seen, heard or felt something that you have no idea about. If your questions haven’t revealed the information then remembering to ask open questions at the end of an interview like: "Is there anything I have missed or that you thought I would ask about but haven’t?" may just be the "one more thing". Even as you close the interview and thank them for their contribution, make sure they know how to get hold of you later when they realise they haven’t told you about that one small fact that could prove crucial to your investigation.