Tempe Police Chief: Uber AV vs. Pedestrian Crash May Have Been Unavoidable

After viewing the videos taken by two cameras equipped in the Uber autonomous vehicle that fatally struck 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg on Sunday, the chief concluded the crash was difficult to avoid. Also, lessons on the crash from David Leonhardt.

3 minute read

March 21, 2018, 11:00 AM PDT

By Irvin Dawid

Sadly, Elaine Herzberg, who was fatally struck by an Uber in autonomous mode with a driver behind the wheel on March 18 in Tempe, Ariz., may take her place in history alongside Henry Bliss, who, after stepping off a trolley in Manhattan on Sept. 12, 1899, was hit by a battery-powered taxi, becoming the first American pedestrian to die from a crash with a motor vehicle.

New York Times op-ed columnist David Leonhardt penned some lessons from the Tempe crash for us to consider, but first an update on the crash itself from Carolyn Said, who writes on autonomous vehicles for the San Francisco Chronicle.

“The driver said it was like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” said Sylvia Moir, police chief in Tempe, Ariz., the location for the first pedestrian fatality involving a self-driving car. “His first alert to the collision was the sound of the collision. 

The self-driving Volvo SUV was outfitted with at least two video cameras, one facing forward toward the street, the other focused inside the car on the driver, Moir said in an interview.

After viewing the videos, which have not been released, Moir said, “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.”

Another revelation: Herzberg did not step into Mill Avenue near Curry Road from the sidewalk but rather from "a center median into a lane of traffic," reports Said. The speed limit of Mill Avenue is 35 mph. The Uber was reportedly traveling 38 mph.

Lessons on the crash from David Leonhardt, New York Times op-ed columnist

"[E]everyone — policymakers, the media, the public — should recognize how the Tempe crash may feed a dangerous pattern of irrationality: Human beings are quick to rationalize their own errors and quick to obsess over a machine’s errors," he opines on March 20.

As Cade Massey of the University of Pennsylvania told me yesterday, “People punish the machine more harshly for mistakes than they do humans.”

Let's keep this traffic fatality in perspective. "Human-driven cars kill more than 100 Americans on average each day," Leonhardt adds.

This country now has the most dangerous roads [see posts on America's deadly roads (Leonhardt op-ed) and on World Resouces Institute/World Bank study] per mile driven of any affluent country. And less than 30 years ago, our roads were no more dangerous than those in any average affluent country.

A final note on the comparison of Herzberg to Bliss who was killed by the Uber of his day in 1899, a taxi, and an electric one at that. In the following 113 years, there have been over 3.6 million fatalities on America's roadways caused by human-driven motor vehicles. Autonomous vehicles, Sunday's crash notwithstanding, have the potential to dramatically reduce the rate at which road users, particularly the most vulnerable, pedestrians and cyclists, die in traffic.

Hat tip to Kenyon Karl via Sierra Club Healthy Communities and Transportation forum.

Monday, March 19, 2018 in San Francisco Chronicle

Aeriel view of white sheep grazing on green grass between rows of solar panels.

Coming Soon to Ohio: The Largest Agrivoltaic Farm in the US

The ambitious 6,000-acre project will combine an 800-watt solar farm with crop and livestock production.

April 24, 2024 - Columbus Dispatch

Large blank mall building with only two cars in large parking lot.

Pennsylvania Mall Conversion Bill Passes House

If passed, the bill would promote the adaptive reuse of defunct commercial buildings.

April 18, 2024 - Central Penn Business Journal

Workers putting down asphalt on road.

U.S. Supreme Court: California's Impact Fees May Violate Takings Clause

A California property owner took El Dorado County to state court after paying a traffic impact fee he felt was exorbitant. He lost in trial court, appellate court, and the California Supreme Court denied review. Then the U.S. Supreme Court acted.

April 18, 2024 - Los Angeles Times

Divvy Chicago

Divvy Introduces E-Bike Charging Docks

New, circular docks let e-bikes charge at stations, eliminating the need for frequent battery swaps.

56 minutes ago - Streetsblog Chicago

Freeway sign with "severe weather - use caution" over multilane freeway in rainy weather.

How Freeway Projects Impact Climate Resilience

In addition to displacement and public health impacts, highway expansions can also make communities less resilient to flooding and other climate-related disasters.

1 hour ago - Transportation for America

Wind turbines and solar panels against a backdrop of mountains in the Mojave Desert near Palm Springs, California

California Grid Runs on 100% Renewable Energy for Over 9 Hours

The state’s energy grid was entirely powered by clean energy for some portion of the day on 37 out of the last 45 days.

April 24 - Fast Company

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Call for Speakers

Mpact Transit + Community

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.