The California Highway Patrol determined this month that a cyclist was at fault for a fatal collision in which she was struck Nov. 2 by a truck driven by Sacramento judge. But two retired supervisors of the CHP’s elite accident investigation team contend that the agency’s conclusion was not supported by the evidence.
The CHP said that Margaret Bengs rode her bike across Fair Oaks Boulevard in front of a pickup truck driven by Sacramento Superior Court Judge Matthew Gary as he was making a left turn onto Fair Oaks. The investigating officer found that she had violated state traffic law by attempting to cross the street in the middle of the block and not at the intersection.
After reviewing the 16-page accident report at the request of The Sacramento Bee, two accident reconstruction experts who previously headed CHP Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Teams, or MAIT, reached a different conclusion than the CHP.
“There is nothing prohibiting the bicyclist from crossing the roadway at that location,” said Bob Snook, who headed the Valley Division MAIT when he retired six years ago. “The officer’s opinion that the bicyclist was ‘not allowed to do so’ is not supported by facts or law.”
Witnesses provided conflicting statements about the accident, and the CHP didn’t resolve the discrepancies because the investigating officer failed to collect key physical evidence, said Snook and Bob Koetting, who headed the Northern Division MAIT when he retired from the CHP four years ago.
“The investigation is thin,” Koetting said. He added that he doesn’t blame the officer but a CHP culture that favors quick investigations and prioritizes clearing of crash scenes to keep traffic moving. Snook has a similar view.
CHP spokeswoman Officer Jenna Berry said the agency would not answer questions about the investigation or the accident report, saying the report “stands on its own.”
“The CHP takes every investigation seriously and has conducted a thorough and impartial investigation of this collision,” she added.
Bengs, 66, died the day after the crash. She had served as a speechwriter for former Gov. George Deukmejian and former state Attorney General Dan Lungren and was an op-ed contributor to The Sacramento Bee.
Bengs’ family and bicycle advocates say the accident report has furthered their conviction that the CHP has given Gary preferential treatment because he is a judge. The agency denies claims of favoritism, but it has acknowledged errors in its reporting about Bengs’ time of death and whether she was wearing a helmet. Anne Bengs Maffucci, Margaret’s sister, said the family is considering legal action.
Given the high-profile nature of the Bengs case, the CHP should have brought in the MAIT to investigate, Snook and Koetting said. The eight MAIT units across California conduct in-depth investigations and use reconstruction techniques to determine accident causes.
Instead, the primary investigation was handled by the officer dispatched to the accident. The officer interviewed two witnesses at the scene. Gary, who has repeatedly declined to comment about the accident, told the officer he made a left-hand turn into the center turn lane on Fair Oaks Boulevard and stopped, according to the CHP report. He said he waited for southbound traffic to clear, then accelerated a short distance before Bengs cut in front of him. He braked but could not stop before hitting her, Gary said.
Another witness, Dara Thowtho of Carmichael, gave the CHP an account similar to Gary’s, according to an unredacted CHP report obtained by The Bee. She said she was driving southbound on Fair Oaks Boulevard when she saw Bengs ride her bike in front of Gary’s truck. Thowtho did not return messages seeking comment.
Robert Miles, who was driving northbound on Fair Oaks Boulevard, was contacted by the CHP after the accident because he had called 911 when he saw the crash. Miles told the CHP he saw Bengs in the center turn lane on her bike before he saw Gary’s truck. In an interview with The Bee, Miles said Bengs was stopped, straddling her bike and waiting for traffic to clear. He said he does not think Gary stopped in the turn lane before hitting Bengs.
“He obviously didn’t see her,” he said. “He just slammed into her.”
Gary told the CHP he was driving less than 10 mph when he hit Bengs, and the investigating officer used that speed in his summary. The officer could have gotten another speed estimate by examining skid marks from the point of impact to the point where the vehicle stopped, Koetting said.
But Snook and Koetting said the officer made a critical error by immediately having Gary’s truck removed from the accident scene and not collecting that evidence.
The investigating officer said in the report he cleared the roadway to “ensure the safety of emergency responders, involved parties, witnesses, and passing motorists.” Koetting said the truck would have protected anyone in the center turn lane for the few minutes it would have taken to collect the evidence.
Bengs suffered head trauma, two broken arms and sustained internal injuries in the crash. Koetting and Snook said it would be possible, but out of the ordinary, for someone to receive such severe injuries when hit by a vehicle going less than 10 mph.
MAIT units have software that can download information from event data recorders or “black boxes” in vehicles such as Gary’s truck, Snook and Koetting said. That could have enabled officers to determine Gary’s speed at impact, they said.
The recorders have become standard equipment in cars and trucks in recent years, including the 2014 Toyota Tundra that Gary drove. MAIT investigators can also assess whether vehicle malfunction played a role.
The accident investigation was done in two parts, with a supplemental report completed by a second officer. The focus of the supplemental report was whether Bengs was wearing a helmet. The CHP’s initial report that she was not wearing a helmet upset family members who were adamant that she had one on.
The officer found two witnesses who saw the helmet on her head following the crash, and determined Bengs was “wearing a helmet at the time of the collision.”
One of the witnesses, Shannon Wells-Lawler, previously told The Bee she saw Bengs wearing a helmet after the crash. When questioned by the CHP after The Bee’s previous article, Wells-Lawler said the officer repeatedly asked whether she had a relationship with Bengs’ family or a Bee reporter. She said the officer asked her where the helmet was.
“I was treated like a criminal,” she said.
Miles also said he felt like investigators were a bit hostile. He said one officer disputed his account of the crash, saying, “What if we told you we have a video, and it shows that what you’re saying is wrong?” The investigative report makes no mention of such a video.
Koetting asked why the CHP didn’t give more consideration to Miles’ conflicting account of the crash and try to better establish what happened. Whatever the reason, too much time has passed to collect the evidence needed to better establish what happened, he said.
Berry, the CHP spokeswoman, did not answer questions related to how officers conducted their investigation after the accident.