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California driver blames ‘new car smell’ for crash that killed cyclist

Head-on collision after driver fell asleep at the wheel killed rider, says California Highway Patrol

A California driver who allegedly hit and killed a cyclist while driving a new Tesla electric car has blamed the ‘new car small’ of the ten-day-old vehicle for causing him to fall asleep and crash.

According to Stephen Baxter of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, Navindra Kumar Jain, 63, will be charged with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter in connection with the death of Joshua Alper, 40, on Highway 1 north of Santa Cruz, California on November 2 last year.

Baxter writes that the California Highway Patrol’s initial report says that Jain fell asleep at the wheel about 11:15 a.m. and struck Alper head-on.

Alper was riding a road bike south on Highway 1. Jain was driving north in a black 2013 Tesla S when he crossed the centre line, drove up a hill, down a hill and struck Alper on the road’s shoulder.

Jain remained at the scene and spoke with witnesses and CHP officers.

According to the report, Jain had bought the car about 10 days before the crash. He told officers that the car had a strong, new-car smell that prompted him to use a baking soda car freshener in it.

Jain told authorities that the smell caused him to fall asleep and there were no mechanical problems with the car, according to the report.

A lawyer for Alper’s family has filed a suit against Jain for negligence. The suit alleges that Jain carelessly and negligently drove into Alper.

Car manufacturer Tesla is also named in the suit, which contends that the car was “defective and unreasonably dangerous when used in a normal, intended and foreseeable manner”.

Terry O’Reilly, a lawyer for Alper’s family, said that he had never heard of a new-car smell hindering a driver in his 44 years of trial experience.

He added that he did not understand why Santa Cruz County prosecutors plan to charge Jain for a misdemeanor and not a felony.

“If you or I drove across Highway 1 and into the bushes, then steered straight back on to the highway and killed somebody, we would have been hauled off to jail in handcuffs,” he said.

Santa Cruz County prosecutor Greg Peinado said Jain was charged with a misdemeanor rather than a felony because the facts in the case support “ordinary negligence,” that he failed to use “reasonable care.”

The more serious charge of felony vehicular manslaughter carries up to a 6-year jail sentence, but to make that charge stick, prosecutors would have had to prove Jain acted in such a reckless way that his actions created a “high risk of death,” Peinado said.

“Our real concern was just making sure that we base the charges on the evidence,” Peinado said.

Jain’s lawyers say they plan to test the car’s interior to see if it played a role in the crash. Susan Harriman, one of Jain’s lawyers, said that Jain had the car’s interior lined with a synthetic material rather than the usual cloth or leather, because he does not eat meat or use any animal products.

Jain put a box of baking soda in the car to absorb the smell, and the odor of the seats may have been a factor in why he dozed off and lost control of the car, Harriman said.

John has been writing about bikes and cycling for over 30 years since discovering that people were mug enough to pay him for it rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work.

He was heavily involved in the mountain bike boom of the late 1980s as a racer, team manager and race promoter, and that led to writing for Mountain Biking UK magazine shortly after its inception. He got the gig by phoning up the editor and telling him the magazine was rubbish and he could do better. Rather than telling him to get lost, MBUK editor Tym Manley called John’s bluff and the rest is history.

Since then he has worked on MTB Pro magazine and was editor of Maximum Mountain Bike and Australian Mountain Bike magazines, before switching to the web in 2000 to work for Along with founder Tony Farrelly, John was on the launch team for and subsequently became editor in chief of Future Publishing’s group of cycling magazines and websites, including Cycling Plus, MBUK, What Mountain Bike and Procycling.

John has also written for Cyclist magazine, edited the BikeMagic website and was founding editor of before handing over to someone far more representative of the site's main audience.

He joined in 2013. He lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.

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