Investigators probing a fatal crash involving a 2019 Tesla Model S that killed a pedestrian on Card Sound Road in April are looking into whether the car’s semi-autonomous driver function was engaged when it blew through an intersection and killed the woman, according to the Florida Highway Patrol.
The car didn’t stop at a three-way stop sign intersection, where the road becomes County Road 905, and plowed into a Chevrolet Tahoe pickup truck that was parked on the east-side shoulder of the road, causing it to spin and hit the woman, Benevides Leon Naibel, 22, launching her about 82 feet into the woods on April 25 around 9:15 p.m.
A man who was standing with Naibel, Angulo Dillion, 27, was seriously injured and airlifted to Jackson Memorial South Hospital.
FHP spokesman Lt. Alejandro Camacho said the agency’s traffic homicide investigators are trying to determine if the driver, George McGee, 42, was in complete control of the car at the time, or if the all-electric vehicle’s Navigate on Autopilot was turned on. McGee was on his way to the exclusive Ocean Reef gated community that night, according to a sheriff’s deputy’s body camera footage released to FLKeysNews.com Friday.
The accident is still under investigation, Camacho said in an email Wednesday, replying with a “yes” when asked in a follow-up question if the autopilot function is part of the probe.
Navigate on Autopilot is a semi-autonomous advanced driver-assist system that allows the car to drive itself in many instances as long as the driver’s hands are on the wheel. An alert is sounded if the system detects the driver’s hands are removed from the wheel, according to the National Transportation Safety Administration.
The system is part of Tesla’s goal to develop completely driverless cars by 2020, but the realization of that objective could be in doubt as Navigate on Autopilot was found to have been engaged in several fatal highway crashes involving Teslas since the feature was introduced in 2014, including one in March in Delray Beach.
Tesla did not return a request for comment on the Keys crash.
McGee’s attorney Mike Tein declined to respond to a specific question asking if his client’s car’s Autopilot was engaged before the April crash.
“This was a tragic car accident. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families. Right now, while FHP is still working on its report, it wouldn’t be right for us to comment on the particulars,” Tein said.
According to FHP Cpl. David Riso’s probable cause affidavit for a search warrant for the Tesla, Monroe County Deputy Joel Torres was the first law enforcement officer at the scene. His body camera footage recorded McGee “spontaneously” telling Torres “that he was driving, he had dropped his phone, looked down, ran the stop sign and hit the victim’s car,” Riso wrote in his report.
McGee got out of his car and immediately tended to Dillion, but he did not know Naibel was in the woods, according to Riso’s report. Her body wasn’t found until more than 10 minutes after medics arrived. Torres’ body camera footage captured the tense moment when witnesses and first responders noticed her in the tree line.
About a minute before she was found, Torres suspected there was another person involved in the wreck when a witness at the scene began yelling there were lady’s flip flops underneath the truck. As Torres looks around the truck, McGee can be heard saying, “Please tell me no,” as he approaches the deputy, who told him to “get back.”
Almost two minutes later, the woman can be heard saying, “She’s right there. She’s right there in the bushes.” When Torres gets to the scene, a firefighter crouching beside her body says she’s not breathing.
McGee told Torres the car was on “cruise control” when he dropped the phone. He was on his way to Ocean Reef to pick someone up and was speaking with an airline because he was planning to fly out of town for a funeral the next day.
“And, when I popped up, I saw a black truck,” McGee said. “It happened so fast.”
Police say there was no indication McGee was drinking. He said he was not, and was coming straight from work in Boca Raton to Ocean Reef.
Riso stated in his report that McGee never hit the brakes before hitting the Tahoe.
“The 2019 Tesla did not leave any surface marks, tire marks or skid marks on the roadway surface as it traveled across the travel lanes of County Road 905. This is a clear indication the driver did not brake nor attempt to brake,” Riso wrote.
In the warrant affidavit, Riso seeks the Tesla’s event data recorder, which is “designed to record data related to vehicle dynamic and safety systems when the system senses a crash or a crash-like situation, such as hitting a road obstacle.”
The warrant also seeks “any information that will determine if the vehicle was in auto drive mode or cruise control,” Riso wrote.
Less than a month after the crash that killed Naibel, another woman was killed on Card Sound Road when she drifted into oncoming traffic and directly into the path of a Miami-Dade transit bus. Shakeenah Telishah Bullard, 38, was pronounced dead at the scene of the May 14 crash.
The recent deaths have placed pressure on Miami-Dade and Monroe County officials to do more to make Card Sound Road, which goes through both counties, safer. Many people who work in the Keys take the road, especially those who work at the exclusive Ocean Reef gated community.
The other entryway into the Keys — and the more frequently traveled and direct — is the 18 Mile Stretch from Florida City to Key Largo.
Claude Kershner, owner of Reef Tropical Pool and Landscaping, which has many clients in Ocean Reef, heads a task force of other business owners and Ocean Reef members urging quick action on the road.
“Aside from my prayers for those involved, the pressure today is dramatically increased for a plan for the future,” he said in a May 14 email to Miami-Dade officials in response to the bus crash.
The county’s Department of Transportation and Public Works commissioned a $69,593 “feasibility study” earlier this year looking into options like widening the two-lane road and providing pedestrian and bicycle lanes on the side, said Jennie Lopez, a spokesman for the department.
She said Miami-Dade has had no discussions with its transportation counterparts in Monroe.
Monroe County spokeswoman Kristen Livengood said in an email Thursday that “the county is aware of concerns on Card Sound Road and [the departments of] Transportation and Planning are looking into ideas to address them.”
She added that the county is in discussions with the Florida Department of Transportation about the possibility of conducting a “transportation master plan” Monroe-wide evaluation that would include Card Sound Road in the study.
Since 2015, there have been four fatal crashes on Card Sound Road in Miami-Dade, Lopez said. The narrow highway has become the more dangerous route in and out of the Keys ever since FDOT installed a concrete barrier separating northbound and southbound traffic on the 18 Mile Stretch eight years ago.
Asked whether there is any talk of placing a similar barrier that would separate oncoming traffic on Card Sound Road, Christine Hurley, assistant Monroe County administrator, said it’s too soon to say.
“The study would determine options,” Hurley said. “We haven’t gotten to that yet.”
The barrier on the stretch was completed in 2011, as part of a $330 million overhaul of the highway. Before it was installed, an average of five to seven people died on the the stretch every year, according to FDOT. Although a Key Largo man died in February in a single-vehicle crash after the SUV in which he was a passenger struck the barrier and flipped, road fatalities on the stretch are now rare.