One year ago this week, a distracted driver behind the wheel of an SUV struck and killed a 47-year-old woman as she attempted to walk across a street. The woman was Elaine Herzberg, and the SUV was a self-driving car operated by Uber.
Of the 6,227 pedestrians killed last year on U.S. streets—the highest number of pedestrians killed in the U.S. since 1990—only one was killed by an autonomous vehicle. Yet even though the circumstances appear to be exceptional, in many ways, the death of Elaine Herzberg was the most representative pedestrian fatality of 2018.
By almost every metric, streets got safer last year—except for people walking. Over the past 10 years, the number of pedestrian deaths has risen by over a third, according to the Governors Highway Safety Administration, which released preliminary 2018 data last month. Pedestrians now make up 18 percent of all traffic deaths; a decade ago they only made up 12 percent.
Over the last year, it’s also become more clear that SUVs, which have a larger body and a higher carriage, are twice as likely to deliver fatal blows to pedestrians. New data shows the recent spike in pedestrian deaths tracks closely to a dramatic increase in sales of SUVs. The number of SUVs involved in pedestrian deaths has increased by 50 percent just in the last five years.
A smartphone—which drivers used 57 percent more often in 2018 than they did in 2014, according to a new study—was also a factor in Uber’s crash. Uber’s software failed to recognize Herzberg as a person crossing the street in time to brake. But backup human driver Rafaela Vasquez was streaming a video on her phone during the time of the crash instead of watching the road, according to National Transportation Safety Board investigators. “Had Vasquez been paying attention, they found, she could have stopped the car 42.6 feet before the impact,” reports the Arizona Republic.
The crash was followed by victim blaming, which permeates virtually all reporting of pedestrian crashes. “A female walking outside of the crosswalk,” read the initial police report. “It is dangerous to cross roadways in the evening hour when well-illuminated, managed crosswalks are available,” said Tempe police chief Sylvia Moir in a statement. A few days later Moir told the San Francisco Chronicle that “Uber would likely not be at fault.”
Sure enough, earlier this month, prosecutors in adjacent Yavapai County said they did not see evidence of criminal liability in the crash, even though the National Transportation Safety Board’s report confirmed that Uber had disabled Volvo’s existing onboard safety features which would have detected Herzberg and stopped the car. (Maricopa County, where Tempe is located, wasn’t able to prosecute the case due to a conflict of interest—its attorney’s office had partnered with Uber on an anti-drunk-driving campaign.)
Because of the unprecedented nature of the country’s first fatal autonomous crash, we finally have a pedestrian death examined to the full extent of the federal transportation department’s capabilities, using its most high-tech assessment tools, with recommendations that will hopefully serve as a watershed moment for the self-driving industry—and cities trying to eliminate pedestrian fatalities.
But as it turns out, the one glaring problem—which, if resolved, might have had the best shot at saving Herzberg’s life—is still not fixed. In fact, it’s worse now than it was a year ago.
Earlier this week, Boise, Idaho-based transportation planner Don Kostelec visited the site of the crash to gain a greater understanding of Herzberg’s decisions—and how AV technology might have anticipated those decisions.
In a series of videos posted to Twitter, Kostelec demonstrates how Herzberg would have needed to walk about 100 yards out of her way to use the crosswalk that police chief Moir wanted her and other pedestrians to use. But even the marked crosswalk is hostile to pedestrians, he observes, with too-short crossing times and too-fast turning cars.
Kostelec then stood at the site of the crash, capturing numerous photos and videos showing people crossing outside of the crosswalk, in the exact same place Herzberg did. Some of them were using bikes to carry their belongings, just like Herzberg, who was homeless, did that night.
Even though Uber likely won’t face criminal charges for the 2018 crash, there is a civil suit pending that could set an important precedent. Herzberg’s family is suing the city of Tempe for $10 million, claiming that the city “created a dangerous situation by paving a median where people were not supposed to cross the road.”
In photos taken after Uber’s crash and on Google Maps, it’s easy to see a paved bike and pedestrian trail at the site where Herzberg crossed, forming an X in the median. There’s no crosswalk connecting the path to the sidewalk across several lanes of traffic.
This isn’t the first time a city has been held liable for dangerous roadway conditions. In 2017, a court found that New York City’s street design was 40 percent at fault for the serious injury of a cyclist, which lead to sweeping changes to the street in question.
The city of Tempe has, in fact, made changes to the street. The paved pathway in the median has since been removed and replaced with rocks, as shown in Kostelec’s video.
A spokesperson from the city of Tempe’s confirmed the addition of “rock landscaping and plants” to the median around the same time as the claim was filed in the fall, according to a February report in the Arizona Republic.
In a year’s time, the city of Tempe could have deployed all sorts of solutions to make this area safer for walkers, human drivers, and autonomous vehicles, including Waymo’s self-driving vans, which continue to test on Arizona streets. The city might have added a crosswalk, or reduced the lanes of vehicular traffic, to facilitate the movement of people who are still crossing here despite the attempted deterrents, as Kostelec’s video shows. Now the people who are crossing—the most marginalized and vulnerable road users—are forced to walk through rocks and cacti gardens in addition to crossing an extra wide street unprotected.
Once again, this is typical of how cities respond to pedestrian deaths—few of the 6,227 lives lost last year led to permanent changes on streets. But what’s been remarkable to see at this crash site is a sheer unwillingness from the city to prioritize people over cars, even as the world was watching. Surely the traffic engineers who spent days surveying the site and ultimately decided to fill the median with rocks saw the same phenomenon Kostelec witnessed in a handful of hours.
In an unsettling twist befitting this entire tragic tale, the city’s reaction to the highest-profile pedestrian death of 2018 may have actually managed to make the country’s most scrutinized stretch of road even more dangerous.