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This is the moment when we decide that human lives matter more than cars

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Uber’s fatal Arizona crash is a call to action for cities

A “no pedestrians” sign that instructs walkers to use a crosswalk 100 yards away to access a paved multi-use path. This sign is across the street from the site where Uber’s autonomous vehicle killed a pedestrian in Tempe.
Google Maps

What you will hear the most about Elaine Herzberg, a homeless resident of Tempe, Arizona, who was struck and killed by one of Uber’s autonomous vehicles when she attempted to walk her bike across an eight-lane street, is that she was not using the crosswalk.

“A female walking outside of the crosswalk,” noted the initial police statement. “As soon as she walked into the lane of traffic, she was struck by the vehicle,” reported the sergeant giving a press conference.

“The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” said Tempe police chief Sylvia Moir. “It is dangerous to cross roadways in the evening hour when well-illuminated, managed crosswalks are available.”

The chief of Tempe’s police department went on to tell the San Francisco Chronicle that “Uber would likely not be at fault,” even though the preliminary police investigation determined that the car was speeding—going 38 mph in a 35 mph zone when the crash occurred. (A New York Times story says the vehicle was traveling 40 in a 45 mph zone but does not cite its sources, although a July 2017 Google Street View image shows a 45 mph sign not far from the crash site. According to Tempe police spokesperson Lily Duran, the speed limit is 35 mph.)

A video released by the police department shows Herzberg walking her bike from the center median across two vehicular lanes when she is struck by the vehicle. The human safety driver behind the wheel is shown looking down and not at the road for much of the time before the impact.

Arizona has the highest rate of pedestrian deaths in the nation. Ten pedestrians were killed in the state just in the past week. Last Tuesday, three seniors were killed by a single driver in nearby Fountain Hills. They were all walking in marked crosswalks.

The fact that the state is so deadly for walkers is not a coincidence. The same factor that is responsible for Arizona’s high number of pedestrian deaths is the very same reason Uber is testing there—the state prioritizes cars over the lives of pedestrians.

Our transportation policy protects cars, not walkers

When Uber was ordered to halt its autonomous testing in San Francisco for refusing to file a permit in late 2016, the company orchestrated a dramatic exodus to Arizona, where Gov. Doug Ducey welcomed Uber with the promise of “wide open roads.”

Experts have long attributed the state’s high rate of pedestrian deaths to exceptionally wide streets that are engineered to move cars fast and do not provide adequate safety infrastructure for people who are on foot or bike.

The fast movement of cars is what kills pedestrians. Glancing at a phone might cause a person using a street to make a mistake that results in a collision. When a car crashes into a human, speed is what turns that collision into a death.

The great promise of autonomous vehicles for road safety advocates is that they are meant to eliminate the mistakes that human drivers make. They aren’t supposed to exceed the speed limit, or get distracted by sending a text, or have their vision impaired by driving at night, when most pedestrian deaths occur.

Just on the stretch of North Mill Avenue where the crash occurred, there is plenty of information that should have made Uber’s vehicle drive extra cautiously. There is a bike lane. There is a paved multi-use trail. There are multiple signs that say “bike lane” and “yield to bikes.” Uber’s programming should have taken into consideration that on this stretch of road in particular, there will likely be people walking and biking.

There will be ongoing debate about whether or not the array of sensors atop Uber’s vehicle should have been able to spot a pedestrian or if the “safety driver” inside should have intervened. But that’s not the point.

Uber’s vehicles are not designed to replace human drivers. They are tasked with being better than human drivers.

If an autonomous vehicle is not several magnitudes better than a human driver at detecting a pedestrian and preventing the loss of human life, it cannot be on the road.

Additionally, cities need to admit that their roads need to be fixed.

Bad road design is lethal

Over the last few years, two U.S. cities have made significant headway towards reducing pedestrian deaths. Due to comprehensive, well-funded initiatives, New York and San Francisco have both reduced their traffic deaths to their lowest numbers since the widespread adoption of the (human-driven) automobile.

In fact, most major cities across the country now have Vision Zero strategies to eliminate fatal collisions by redesigning streets in a way that reduces potential conflict between people and cars. A city that signs on agrees that through better street design, every traffic death is preventable.

Earlier this year, Tempe adopted its own Vision Zero initiative that will govern how the city addresses traffic safety. It might take a cue from Orlando, the deadliest U.S. city for pedestrians, which is dramatically redesigning its extra-wide streets to protect walkers and bikers.

But whatever Tempe chooses to do, until those roadways are determined to be safer, the city should not let Uber back on its streets.

Before autonomous vehicles can operate on any city’s streets, a city should prove to its residents that it is taking every possible measure to keep them saferedesigning its streets for people, providing more accessible transit options, and reducing traffic deaths.

That includes, as recommended by the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO), never allowing autonomous vehicles to travel faster than 25 mph in densely populated areas—the speed at which 80 percent of humans will likely live if struck by that vehicle.

Crosswalk or no crosswalk, human driver or robot driver, the only acceptable number of deaths on our streets is no deaths.

We need to shift responsibility to drivers, autonomous or not

Each day, human drivers on U.S. streets kill at least 16 pedestrians. Among wealthy democratic countries, this makes the U.S. not just an outlier, but an anomaly.

U.S. cities have a 40 percent higher rate of traffic deaths compared to our peer nations. American children are twice as likely as kids in those countries to be killed by cars.

The deaths of nearly 6,000 pedestrians on American streets every year are clearly unacceptable.

But the death of Elaine Herzberg is particularly unacceptable because it has now set a dangerous precedent.

The failure of most local authorities to address the fact that Uber’s vehicle was speeding, or Arizona’s prioritization of cars, or the dangerous design of Tempe’s streets as factors in this crash has now reinforced the belief of many Americans that pedestrians who are killed are “distracted walkers” who deserve to be punished or ticketed or criminalized or slandered.

Yet statistically, the people killed by cars in this country are our most vulnerable residents—the youngest, the oldest, the sickest, the poorest, and overwhelmingly likely to be people of color.

These are our parents and children. And until we decide walkers matter more than cars, many more of them will die.

If we accept a city’s claim that it was not able to prevent one pedestrian from being killed by an autonomous vehicle—a vehicle that is being developed to improve safety—we will then accept two deaths. And three. And four.

Before we know it, there will be 16 pedestrian deaths per day at the hands of autonomous vehicle companies, which will never be held accountable—as long as the person who was killed was walking.

This story was originally published on March 20, 2018 and updated on March 22 with a link to the video released by Tempe police and additional information about the speed limit.