Back-Seat Driver

Was Venus Williams to blame for fatal car crash? A lesson for other drivers

Tennis player Venus Williams recently was involved in a fatal car crash that serves up a lesson about who does and doesn’t have the right of way in an intersection.

Williams is being sued by a woman who crashed broadside into her car in early June in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. That woman’s 78-year-old husband, a passenger, hit his head and died a few weeks later.

It remains uncertain whether Williams did anything wrong. Police at the scene initially told Williams she was at fault, but later backed off.

Williams was on her way to a tennis club near her home, driving on a small street that appears to be more of a driveway into a gated community leading to another small street on the other side of the intersection. The cross street is far larger.

She waited at a signal light, the second car in line, then entered the intersection on a green light. A video shows she stopped briefly in the intersection because a car from the opposite direction was turning left in front of her. Williams then continued straight through the intersection at a slow speed. By that time, though, the light had turned red in her direction.

A car on the cross street – a six-lane, 55 mile per hour boulevard – drove into the intersection and hit Williams’ right front. Williams was uninjured.

Who was at fault? The initial take on it came from a police crash investigator, who took witness statements on the the scene. He is seen on his body cam video talking to Williams, as she sits in her car, explaining the tricky nature of the law.

“It’s one of those awkward situations,” he says.

Under the law in Florida, California and other states, once a driver legally enters an intersection, that driver typically retains the “right-of-way” until he or she exits the intersection – even if the light has turned red.

But if the driver for some reason stops in an intersection, that driver may lose the right-of-way and be at fault for blocking traffic.

That might typically happen in congested areas where cars get backed up and cause what is called gridlock in an intersection. The implication is that drivers are obligated to assess the traffic situation ahead of them, and not enter the intersection unless they feel they can get through efficiently.

The investigating officer appears to have that on his mind. “You had the right of way when you started,” he told Williams as she sits pensively listening, “but because you got stuck in the middle of the intersection, you lost that right of way.”

The officer then seems to become a bit less certain. “So, I think you lost your right of way,” the tells her. “My report will probably say that ... I will say that you are at fault in this crash but I am not citing you for the crash because I think you got stuck.”

Williams speaks up, apparently referring to the car that turned across her bow, causing her to stop. “But in a situation like that, what are you going to do? Because you can’t (recording garbled) that other person?”

“Exactly,” the officer says. “I (garbled) just let the insurance companies work it out. I don’t feel comfortable writing the citation when I am not 100 percent sure.”

The Palm Beach Gardens Police later backed away from those comments after viewing the crash video. In a public statement on their website, police simply said that Williams entered the intersection legally. It makes no reference to whether or not she then “lost” the right-of-way.

The video shows that the intersection was uncrowded when Williams entered. Notably, the green light for Williams seems to have been very brief, giving her minimal time to cross six lanes. It’s likely traffic engineers were trying to reduce delays on the larger and much busier cross street.

In their statement, the police make mention of a Florida traffic law that says “vehicular traffic facing a circular green signal may proceed cautiously … but ... shall yield the right-of-way to other vehicles … lawfully within the intersection …”

Florida police declined further comment. But that statute could suggest that the driver of the other car, the one that hit Williams, had the obligation to scan the intersection ahead as she approached to make sure there wasn’t any lagging cross traffic.

The Sacramento Bee talked last week with Sacramento police and California Highway Patrol officials about the law, as well as with a retired CHP officer who had emailed us suggesting a discussion of the crash would be educational for other drivers.

In California, the key vehicle code section is 22526(a). It says “a driver of a vehicle shall not enter an intersection ... unless there is sufficient space on the other side of the intersection ... to accommodate the vehicle driven without obstructing the through passage of vehicles from either side.”

That sometimes comes down to a judgment call, based on safety, officials said. The retired CHP officer told us if a driver “bullies” his way into an intersection and gets slowed or stuck, blocking cross-traffic, officers will write a ticket.

California’s vehicle code includes another pertinent section, one that if followed, can save lives. Section 21451(a) says that drivers entering an intersection on a green light “shall yield the right-of-way to other traffic ... lawfully within the intersection.”

Another way of saying that is: When your light turns green, don’t just hit the gas pedal. Look before you enter.

The takeaway is that the rules of the road don’t account for every element of every situation. Driving is, in a way, an ongoing negotiation with others. In this case, that discussion is headed to court.

Tony Bizjak: 916-321-1059, @TonyBizjak