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'S-curves' are more frequent in mountainous or hilly regions where roads must adapt to geography.

Alex Kotlov/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

For Tiger Woods, “S” marked the spot.

The career of the greatest golfer in the history of the game might be finished, but it wasn’t because of a sports-related injury. Woods, 45, crashed a Genesis GV80 SUV on the morning of February 22 while driving through the Rancho Palos Verdes neighbourhood near Los Angeles. He was trying to negotiate an “S-curve” – a curve to the left or right followed immediately by a curve in the opposite direction. (Hint: like the letter S.)

Investigators have said his crash was “purely an accident” and no alcohol or drugs were involved, although CNN reported that authorities said the SUV “is believed to have been travelling at a high rate of speed.”

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Woods was driving on Hawthorne Boulevard, a stretch of road known among local residents, according to KTLA, as a hotspot for crashes. There have been thirteen there since January, 2020. Hawthorne’s northbound lanes run downhill and culminate in an S-curve. It even has an emergency runway for drivers who exceed the speed limit and are in danger of crashing. Hawthorne proved nearly deadly for Woods, who suffered another accident in 2009 and was charged with DUI in 2017. Investigators said the golfer was lucky to be alive. He suffered serious injuries to both his legs and required surgery.

Woods is one of many unfortunate motorists who have fallen victim to the S-curve (the “S” may as well stand for “serious” or “sinister”). These turns are notoriously tricky. For instance, at an S-curve on British Columbia’s Highway 91, there were 77 collisions between 2011 and 2015. In Chicago, the S-curve near Oak Street Beach has been the site of 199 crashes, 32 injuries and one fatality since the start of 2020. In January, a Utah road was closed twice in one day due to crashes at an S-curve.

One reason S-curves are fertile locations for accidents is that they’re rare. While you can find them anywhere, they are more frequent in mountainous or hilly regions where roads must adapt to geography. If you aren’t used to driving them, you can easily get into trouble. I notice this difference each time I drive with relatives in Northern California or the B.C. Interior. They are used to windy roads, sudden inclines and elevations, and they take S-curves in their stride. Tourists struggle.

Another meaning of the “S” in the S-curve is “surprise.” Rancho Palos Verdes residents know about the S-curve on Hawthorne. They know to brake on the downward stretch to avoid unintentional acceleration. Those unfamiliar with the location are the ones who can get in trouble.

And the final, and most lethal meaning for “S” is “speed.” On an S-curve, speed can be a killer.

As a vehicle turns, centripetal (centre-seeking) force causes its change of direction. Centripetal force is required for an object to have circular motion. Meanwhile, centrifugal force pulls the vehicle away from the centre. The faster a vehicle is travelling into a curve, the greater the centrifugal force and the higher the risk of swinging off the road or into oncoming traffic.

Tiger Woods's Genesis SUV lies on its side after an accident in the Rancho Palos Verdes neighbourhood of Los Angeles, on Feb. 23, 2021.

KABC-TV via AP

If you come into an S-curve too hot, therefore, you run the risk of a skid or rollover. If you’re smart, you travel a little under the suggested speed limit. You can lessen the angle of your turn by adjusting your lane position. If you’re turning left, inch to the right-side of your lane. If you’re turning right, hug the outside of the left.

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For Tiger Woods, the world’s most famous S-curve victim, it’s going to be a matter of perspective. He was in a crash in which he crossed two lanes, hit a tree and rolled his car, in which the outside of his vehicle was demolished almost beyond recognition. He suffered serious injuries to his legs but survived.

Is that good luck or bad luck?

We’ve learned a lot watching Tiger Woods play golf. We should also learn from his harrowing mishap. When it comes to the S-curve, the road doesn’t play favourites. Know the road. Pay attention and slow down.

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