USA TODAY US Edition
Did Tiger Woods fall asleep at the wheel?
USA TODAY Sports asked forensic car accident experts to weigh in based on what available evidence indicates.
The available evidence from the recent car crash involving Tiger Woods indicates that the famed golfer was not paying attention to the road and drifted off it before crashing his car, three forensic car accident experts told USA TODAY Sports.
The same experts also say the evidence does not indicate he lost control of his vehicle because of excessive speed on a curved downhill road that is known for speeding cars.
They arrived at this theory based on several factors, especially the way Woods’ vehicle appeared to keep going straight ahead instead of staying on the road as it curved right.
Woods, 45, was traveling north near Los Angeles when his sport utility vehicle left its lane, went across the median into the southbound lanes, went off the road, hit a tree, rolled over and sustained major frontal damage.
Woods broke multiple bones in his lower right leg, which indicates he was applying the brake at the time of impact, according to the experts.
They also said the evidence indicates Woods applied the brake late into the collision sequence.
“To me, this is like a classic case of falling asleep behind the wheel, because the road curves and his vehicle goes straight,” said Jonathan Cherney, a consultant who provides car accident analysis as an expert witness in court cases. Cherney, a former police detective, examined the Woods’ crash site in person since the accident on Tuesday.
“It’s a drift off the road, almost like he was either unconscious, suffering from a medical episode or fell asleep and didn’t wake up until he was off the road and that’s where the brake application came in,” Cherney said.
There were no skid marks on the road to indicate braking, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva. Woods’ vehicle did have anti-lock brakes. So even if he was to slam on the brakes prior to hitting the curb, “you wouldn’t necessarily see tire marks,” said Felix Lee, an accident reconstruction expert who is part of the Expert Institute, a network that provides expert
witnesses in litigation.
Lee said a key clue is how the vehicle did not change direction entering the curve and instead went directly into the median.
“My feeling is that speed wasn’t that much of an issue,” Lee said. “It was just some kind of inattention that caused the curb strike.”
After leaving his lane and striking the median, Woods’ vehicle went about 400 feet before stopping. Cherney said he didn’t see evidence of “any steering input” that would indicate Woods tried to avoid the emergency.
This suggests a “very delayed response” by Woods to the situation, said Rami Hashish, principal at the National Biomechanics Institute, which analyzes the cause of accidents. “It was suggesting he wasn’t paying attention at all.”
Hashish said he suspects the damage to the vehicle and Woods would have been much greater if he had been traveling at an excessive speed. The speed limit on that road is 45 mph.
“You can walk away with a broken leg from 45 to 50 mph,” Hashish said. “If you’re hitting 60, 65 and you’re hitting a stationary object, your likelihood of death increases exponentially.”
If he was going 80 mph, “he wouldn’t be having an open fracture in this leg,” Hashish said. “He’d be dead.”
Villanueva said he didn’t know the vehicle’s speed yet but said it could have been a factor, as well as inattentiveness.
The accident was serious enough that it could end Woods’ golf career. Woods had to be extricated from the vehicle and taken to the hospital for surgery.
“This stretch of road is challenging, and if you’re not paying attention, you can see what happens,” Villanueva said Wednesday.
Villanueva said then that the crash was “purely an accident” and there was no evidence of impairment or medication involved. He also said Woods was “lucid” at the time a sheriff ’s deputy arrived on the scene. But that doesn’t mean he might not have been alert when he left his lane and kept going until he crashed.
The experts found it puzzling that Villanueva had determined it to be an accident already without having examined the vehicle’s “black box” computer, which could reveal his steering, braking or acceleration actions prior to impact. Villanueva said Wednesday that information had not been pulled yet.
Regarding an examination of Woods’ blood to see if he was medicated, Villanueva said Wednesday that the hospital might have that information.
“We’ll assume that in the course of the treatment they draw blood and they have to do that obviously because he has to go into surgery and all that,” he said. “But that’s going to require a search warrant from our part to go into those details.”
USA TODAY Sports contacted the sheriff’s department Saturday to ask whether the SUV’s black box or Woods’ blood was examined. The sheriff’s department responded with a statement: “The traffic collision investigation is ongoing, and traffic investigators have not made any conclusions as to the cause of the collision.”
Woods announced in January that he recently had the latest of several surgical procedures on his back.
In 2017, police found him asleep at the wheel in Florida. A toxicology report stated he had Vicodin, Dilaudid, Xanax, Ambien and THC in his system then, when he was arrested on suspicions of drunken driving. Ambien is used to treat sleep problems and has been used by Woods previously.
“There’s no real accident unless it’s a true medical emergency,” Cherney said.
“There’s always some level of negligence, whether it’s simple negligence like looking down at your phone or changing the radio station that starts the whole collision sequence. … So when the sheriff is saying this is just an accident, I don’t know how in the world you can state that so early in the game without completing an in-depth thorough investigation and reconstruction analysis.”
Villanueva’s declaration that this was an accident was a “preliminary” assessment, Sheriff ’s Deputy Graciela Medrano said Saturday.
Cherney noted the weight of that SUV, a Genesis SV80, might be about 6,000 pounds, much more than a standard passenger car of about 3,500 pounds. Such heavy weight could help explain the damage done in the crash, as opposed to having it stem from excessive speeding, he said.
Cherney also questions whether the vehicle actually rolled over “several times,” as the sheriff previously indicated.
“I consider a rollover one full revolution, not just falling onto the side,” Cherney said. “I don’t think that vehicle experienced as many revolutions or complete rolls as they are portraying.”
He also noted there are tire marks on the median, but “you don’t see any tire marks again until he actually goes off the road,” Cherney said. “And when he goes off the road, his left-side tires and right-side tires both struck it and you can see he just went right over the curb. To me, that’s also indicative of him not applying the brakes, and he went ahead and continued off the side of the road until he hit the brush. Probably at some point when he hit the curb he regained consciousness and decided to apply the brakes.”
Woods’ Twitter account Friday said that he was recovering from surgery and “in good spirits.”
“We will not have any further updates at this time,” the statement on his Twitter account said. “Thank you for your continued privacy.”