Visual Eyewitness Identification of Suspects of Vehicle and other Crimes

Visual Eyewitness Identification of Suspects of Vehicle and other CrimesCrime is having a significant impact on road safety in South Africa. We are confronted daily not only by reckless and lawless drivers but also criminals striving to take away our vehicles or the contents within our vehicles.

Can we assist the police and private investigators to identify these criminals, making it easier to apprehend them and to track down our vehicles and valuables?

Eyewitness identification of a perpetrator is incredibly powerful in the judicial process. There are few things more damning for the accused suspect than a witness telling the court that the suspect was at the scene and participated in the crime.

In this section, we would like to offer some advice to vehicle owners who may fall victim to vehicle-related and other crimes as to the questions they may be asked in the search for the perpetrators!  

Safety Advice for Witnesses

On the Arrive Alive website on a page titled Safety when Witnessing and Reporting Crime on the Roads, we share some important safety tips for witnesses:

  • Make observations if possible, but your first objective is to stay safe.
  • A witness should never draw attention to themselves or antagonise the suspects by hooting, hollering, or be seen to be taking images/videos of the incident.
  • With caution, identify the criminals, get-a-away vehicles (s), or any information that may be valuable towards an investigation.
  • Do not remain around the area to take video footage of the incident.

In a Hijacking situation:

  • Do not make eye contact with the hijacker. He may perceive this behaviour as a threat and retaliate aggressively.
  • Keep your hands still and visible to the hijacker, so as to give him assurance of your passive content.
  • Do not speak too fast (if you are able to talk) and do not make sudden movements.

A Need for Caution

It is important to recognize that a witness’s identification can be mistaken.

All human efforts to bear witness can be characterized as gathering, interpreting, storing, and recalling information and, as such, depend fundamentally upon brain systems that mediate sensation, perception, and memory.

Why do Eyewitnesses Fail

Why do Eyewitnesses Fail?

Eyewitness misidentifications can be characterized as failures of visual perception or memory, the former being seeing things inaccurately, the latter being the loss of accuracy or precision in the storage, maintenance, and recall of what was seen.

Why are eyewitness identifications subject to such a high rate of error?

  • Witnesses are subject to high stress or anxiety
  • The human memory tends to reconstruct incidents because humans do not have the capability to record memories like a video recorder
  • Witnesses often focus on weapons, not the identity of the perpetrator
  • Suggestive eyewitness identification procedures used by police or prosecutorial agencies
  • Cross-racial eyewitness identifications are known to be incredibly suspect.

Witnesses commonly testify as to their focus on the perpetrator’s weapon. Typically, a witness can recount the exact colour, size, and shape of a gun or a knife pulled on them. What they cannot do, however, is reproduce the perpetrator in their brain.

High-Stress Environment & Trauma

When an individual is placed in a high-stress situation, their ability to accurately observe and later recall events is diminished. For example, if someone is confronted with the sound or sight of gunfire during the night, the typical reaction is to look for the gun first, then find cover.

The high stress of the event puts the witness in survival mode and makes it much more likely that the witness will be unable to accurately recall an event later. Any traumatic situation, such as an assault, murder, rape, or robbery, will make it much harder for a witness to identify the perpetrator.

Human Memory

As we walk down a busy street, it is impossible for our brain to interpret everything we see. In fact, our memories take in bits and pieces of the information and process the important aspects. Details like a stranger’s height, weight, age, and hair are often overlooked.

Later, when the police ask a witness to recount specific details of a suspect, we do not have the ability to rewind a video in our brain to figure out what we saw. Instead, our brain fills in details we cannot recount in an effort to recreate a full picture. This often results in bad eyewitness identifications.

Crime is an Unexpected Event for the Victim

Because crime is an unexpected event (at least to an eyewitness), one can draw a natural distinction between variables that reflect the witness’ unplanned situational or cognitive state at the time of the crime and variables that reflect controllable conditions and internal states following the witnessed events.

Researchers categorize these factors, respectively, as estimator and system variables.

  • Estimator variables: Such things as the viewing conditions (e.g., lighting, distance, duration), the presence of distracting stimuli (e.g., weapons, bright lights, loud noises), and internal states of the observer (e.g., attention, motivation, skill, prejudice).
  • System variables: Those that can be controlled by the criminal justice system and include such things as the manner in which a lineup is presented to an eyewitness, the instructions given, and whether the lineup administrator is blind to the status of the lineup participants.

Identification of Suspect of Vehicle and Other Crime

Identification of Suspect of Vehicle and Other Crime

Body Type

  • Gender:  Male/Female
  • Skin Tone and Complexion: Black/ Brown/White
  • Hair Colour and Length
  • Facial Hear:  Clear/Beard/Moustache
  • Height: Short/Average/Tall
  • Size: Slender/Average/Large 


  • Upper body: Jacket/Hoodie/Jersey/Windbreaker/Shirt-T-Shirt
  • Lower Body: Pants/Denim/Colour and Length of Pants/Baggie
  • Feet: Boots, Shoes, Trainers, Sandals


  • Headgear: Hat/Cap Beanie/Balaclava
  • Jewellery: Glasses/Tinted Glasses/Band/Wristwatch/Rings/Chains
  • Weapons: Knife/Gun - Pistol or Revolver/Club
  • Gloves: Fabric and Colour

Eye-Catching Features:

  • Markings/Branding
  • Brand Name Clothing
  • Clothing Graphics
  • Tattoo and Size of Tattoo

Can you provide an accurate description of your vehicle or the getaway vehicle?

Do you know the answers to the following?

  • Is the vehicle equipped with a tracking system?
  • How much fuel is in the vehicle?
  • Is there an antihijacking cut-out switch?
  • Have you witnessed a direction of travel?

Aspects of Vehicle Identification:

  • Model
  • Make
  • Shape
  • Registration
  • Colour
  • Signs of Visible Damage
  • Markings and Branding

Also view:

Safety when Witnessing and Reporting Crime on the Roads

Hijack Prevention Guidelines

Preventing Smash-and-Grab

Crime as a Threat to Road Safety