The safety driver in an Uber self-driving car that struck and killed a pedestrian in 2018 has been charged with negligent homicide, Arizona officials announced Tuesday.
A grand jury charged Rafaela Vasquez with one count of negligent homicide for allegedly causing the death of 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, who was crossing the street at night in Tempe, Arizona.
Vasquez who was the safety monitor in the self-driving test vehicle that hit Herzberg, failed to brake until it was too late, investigators said.
Vasquez pled not guilty at an arraignment Tuesday.
It’s believed to be the first pedestrian death involving a self-driving vehicle.
The Tempe Police Department found the accident could have been avoided if Vasquez wasn’t distracted watching “The Voice” on her phone.
Prosecutors decided in 2019 that Uber is not criminally liable for the accident and declined to pursue charges against the company, though the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Uber also “had an inadequate safety culture, exhibited by a lack of risk assessment mechanisms, of oversight of vehicle operators, and of personnel with backgrounds in safety management.”
The crash caused Uber to pull its autonomous vehicle testing from Arizona altogether, and now it tests cars in Pittsburgh.
“Distracted driving is an issue of great importance in our community,” County Attorney Allister Adel said in a statement. “When a driver gets behind the wheel of a car, they have a responsibility to control and operate that vehicle safely and in a law-abiding manner.”
Self-driving car companies typically use backup drivers in case a human needs to take control of the vehicle during testing, though Waymo and GM’s Cruise are beginning to roll out rides without any backup drivers at all.
Though Tesla’s Autopilot system is only partially autonomous, it has been at the center of several crashes over the past few years, including a fatal accident in which the driver was playing a videogame on his phone.
An initial pretrial conference for Vasquez is scheduled for October 27.