There was one obvious question raised by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s declaration that Tiger Woods’ February car crash was caused by excessive speed.
Why didn’t Woods receive so much as a speeding ticket or reckless driving citation if he was traveling nearly twice as fast as the permissible speed on the twisting road where he lost control of his SUV?
Lomita Sheriff’s Capt. James Powers explained at a Wednesday news conference that there was insufficient evidence to support a citation without an eyewitness or police observation. While the SUV’s event data recorder revealed that Woods reached speeds up to 87 miles per hour just before the crash, Powers said issuing a citation would be “a waste of time” because “a lot of courts will dismiss it.”
Beverly Hills criminal defense attorney Jeffery Rubenstein corroborated Powers’ explanation. The former Los Angeles County prosecutor told Yahoo Sports, “It has to happen in the presence of the officer. Unless they witnessed him speeding, they’re probably not issuing a citation.”
Other experts who spoke with Yahoo Sports agreed with Rubenstein while also citing another potential reason that Woods might have avoided a citation. Not only was this a single-car accident in which nobody besides Woods was hurt, the legendary golfer also was trapped in the vehicle and sustained potentially career-threatening leg injuries.
“Sometimes they don’t give a traffic citation out of courtesy,” said Kurt Weiss, a California-based traffic collision reconstruction specialist. “Tiger has more worries in his life than a traffic citation. Why bother? That happens a lot in these sorts of situations.”
The lack of a traffic citation is one of several Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department decisions that have come under scrutiny for being favorable to Woods. Police have also been questioned about why they didn’t more thoroughly investigate whether Woods was under the influence of medication or other drugs at the time of the accident.
In a Feb. 23 news conference held hours after the accident, Sheriff Alex Villanueva indicated there was "no evidence of impairment" when observing Woods at the scene. Officers saw no signs that Woods had narcotics or pain medicine in his system, according to Villanueva, nor did they smell alcohol on his breath.
When asked if police had administered a field sobriety test, Powers explained Wednesday that “it would not have been appropriate” given the injuries Woods had suffered. The golfer’s safety was the primary concern of officers at the scene of his rollover crash on a notoriously treacherous stretch of Hawthorne Boulevard near Rancho Palos Verdes.
Police also did not seek permission to obtain a sample of Woods’ blood and examine it for evidence of medication or drugs. Experts who spoke to Yahoo Sports agreed with Villanueva’s conclusion that without evidence of impairment, a judge was unlikely to grant a warrant for a blood sample.
“They have to have some kind of objective symptoms to be able to legally go that route,” said Daniel Mahoney, a former police officer who now runs an accident investigation consulting firm in Walnut Creek, California. “If you don’t have that, then legally you can’t decide, ‘Well at the hospital we’re going to draw blood.’ You can get the consent of the person, but typically that doesn’t happen.”
Mahoney said that Woods’ history would not have helped the Sheriff’s Department obtain a warrant without evidence of impairment. In 2017, Florida police arrested Woods on suspicion of drunken driving after they found him asleep at the wheel of his Mercedes-Benz at 3 a.m. A toxicology report later showed he had the sleep medication Ambien in his system, as well as other medication such as Vicodin.
While Woods has said that he has no memory of his most recent crash — the accident report revealed that he later thought he was in Florida, not California — experts suggest that is common and not necessarily a sign that he was again asleep at the wheel. They also point to other signs that he was conscious and actively trying to regain control of the SUV as it hit the median and struck a signpost and a tree before coming to rest in a gulley by the side of the road.
In Wednesday’s news conference, law enforcement said that data recordings from Woods’ car show that he did not brake prior to the accident but did step on the accelerator at a "99 percent" rate. Experts found Powers’ theory “plausible” that Woods panicked and accidentally hit the gas.
“There’s plenty of instances of people getting the brake and the accelerator pedal confused,” said California-based accident reconstruction specialist Daniel Vomhof III. “The fact that he had steering inputs recorded by the EDR, that indicates he most likely had his hands on the wheel and he was trying to do something.”
If the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department erred anywhere, experts say it was by labeling the crash “purely an accident” the day after it happened. That gave the perception that police weren’t taking seriously the potential that Woods had driven while impaired.
To some experts, the conclusion that excessive speed caused the crash was also a copout. They argue that law enforcement should have subpoenaed cell phone records to see if Woods might have been driving distracted or done more to determine what else could have contributed to the loss of control of the vehicle.
“My gut feeling is they went from overly protective of Tiger to not digging deep enough,” Vomhof said. “Speed in and of itself does not cause a collision. Speed in conjunction with something else, yes. But speed itself does not cause a traffic collision.”
Ultimately, however, experts who spoke to Yahoo Sports agree with Villanueva’s assertion that Woods received no special treatment. If anything, experts say, his accident received more police scrutiny than similar ones usually do because of the media attention surrounding it.
“A lot of times, if the driver is not dead and nobody else is injured, the police just write a report, close it out and let the insurance company pay for all the damage,” Mahoney said. “Because of who this is, I believe the law enforcement entity probably went the extra mile to do a complete investigation.”
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