ALAMEDA, Calif. — A California doctor allegedly plunged his family hundreds of feet down a coastal cliff in what authorities have described as a murder attemptbut their unlikely survival is likely because of luck and a well-built vehicle, experts said.
Dharmesh Patel, 41, is accused of barreling a Tesla Model Y off “Devil’s Slide,” likely flipping the SUV several times on its way down the roughly 250-foot cliff 20 miles south of San Francisco on the morning of Jan. 2, the California Highway Patrol said.
Images captured by a rescue team showed the battered SUV right-side-up, perched precariously on a rocky ledge just above the Pacific Ocean.
Jingwen Yu, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute, said their survival was a “kind of a miracle, considering the impact severity.”
“The driver probably underestimated how safe a vehicle could be, which provided us ‘hope’ for vehicle safety,” Yu said in an email.
Patel, a 41-year-old woman and two children ages 4 and 7 — both of whom were in car seats — were also in the SUV, California Highway Patrol spokesman Mark Andrews said.
Andrews declined to specify their conditions Thursday but said all remained hospitalized.
It isn’t clear how fast Patel was driving when his vehicle left the scenic stretch of Highway 1 at roughly 11:00 am. Nor is it clear what driving mode Patel was using before the SUV careened off the cliff, the California Highway Patrol said.
“However, that does not appear to be a contributing factor in this incident,” the agency said Tuesday.
Flipped several times
In a video from the sceneCal Fire San Mateo Santa Cruz Battalion Chief Brian Pottenger, a fire official involved in the rescue effort, said the SUV flipped “several” times on its way down. Yu said the SUV appeared to have struck the cliffside as it tumbled toward the ocean.
“Rollover” incidents tend to be far more lethal than front-end or side crashes, Yu said. While the images showed a car that had suffered major damage, Yu said its integrity appeared to have remained intact.
“The occupants still have a survival space,” he said. “That’s remarkable.”
Yu pointed to the SUV’s roof strength and seat belt design. He also said its low center of gravity — the car’s batteries are in its undercarriage — may have helped it land on its wheels instead of its roof.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a nonprofit research and educational organization, has given the Tesla Model Y top safety scores since the SUV was introduced in 2020, a spokesman said.
But the organization’s chief research officer, David Zuby, cautioned that no carmaker prepares for an event like the one on Devil’s Slide.
“In my 35 years of working on vehicle safety, I’ve never had an automaker say, ‘Look at this crash test we’re doing for extra credit,’” he said. “No car you could go buy today is designed to protect the driver when they drive off a cliff like that.”
Their survival, he said, was “mostly luck.”
Safety improvements over the years
Still, Zuby said cars have generally become safer in the last three decades. They’re built with stronger materials, like high-strength steel and a better-designed “safety cage,” or the area that protects a car’s occupants.
Those improvements mean people are less likely to die in wrecks than they were in the 1970s and 1980s, Zuby said.
“People are wearing seatbelts more than they were 30 years ago,” he added. “That for sure or likely played a role in those people’s survival.”
Whether it was a seat belt, luck or the Model Y’s well-built roof, Pottenger said that while rescue workers were developing a recovery plan, through binoculars they noticed someone moving in the SUV’s front seat.
“It was very shocking,” he told NBC News NOW. “We didn’t expect that. It really turned my mind into a different avenue, that this is not a recovery, this is an active rescue.”
Helicopters were dispatched, and the family was hoisted from the vehicle using rescue baskets, he said.
Authorities have not identified a motive in the alleged crime. Patel, who works at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Los Angeles, will be booked into the San Mateo County Jail on attempted murder and child abuse charges after he is released from the hospital, the California Highway Patrol said.
It isn’t clear if Patel has a lawyer. In a statement, the hospital said it was “deeply saddened to learn of a traffic incident involving one of our physicians and his family. We are extremely grateful there were no severe injuries.”
The hospital declined to comment further.