The woman operating a self-driving Uber that hit and killed a pedestrian crossing Mill Avenue in March 2018 is facing a negligent homicide charge and possible prison time for not controlling the vehicle, the Maricopa County attorney announced Tuesday.
It was the first pedestrian fatality involving a self-driving vehicle in the country.
Rafaela Vasquez, now 46, was watching “The Voice” television program on one of her two phones when the Volvo SUV she was operating struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, according to a report from Tempe police. Herzberg was crossing Mill just south of Curry Road and was outside of the crosswalk.
“Distracted driving is an issue of great importance in our community,” County Attorney Allister Adel said Tuesday 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.”
A grand jury indicted Vasquez on Aug. 27.
The “dangerous” Class 4 felony could bring a sentence of four to eight years in prison if she is convicted, according to Jennifer Liewer, a spokeswoman for the attorney’s office.
Vasquez pleaded not guilty Tuesday in Maricopa County Superior Court, and was released to pretrial services with ankle monitoring, according to Adel’s office.
A pretrial conference is set for Oct. 27.
Uber declined to comment about the charges on Tuesday.
An attorney for Vasquez could not immediately be reached.
Initially, then-Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery cited a conflict of interest in the case because his office had partnered with Uber on a ride-share campaign to encourage people not to drink and drive.
The case was transferred to Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, who declined to pursue charges against Uber a year after the accident.
Polk recommended further investigation into the crash to determine if Maricopa County could charge the driver. Tempe police continued to investigate the crash, closing Mill Avenue for a few hours last summer to conduct a lighting test of the crash scene.
The fallout from the accident was broad, and who was at fault for it was the subject of significant debate. Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir, who announced her resignation Tuesday, initially called the crash likely “unavoidable” for any driver.
The crash brought an end to Uber’s self-driving car tests in Tempe and Scottsdale and cast a shadow over the industry nationwide.
A report from the National Transportation Safety Board previously found that the Volvo was traveling about 43 miles per hour, heading north on Mill Avenue after crossing the bridge over Tempe Town Lake, when the technology in the vehicle tried to process what it detected in the roadway.
The radar, cameras and “light detecting and ranging,” or lidar, picked up Herzberg 6 seconds before the collision. But the computer initially couldn’t determine what she was, according to the NTSB report.
“The self-driving system software classified the pedestrian as an unknown object, as a vehicle, and then as a bicycle,” the report said.
The software also couldn’t immediately tell which way she was headed.
Finally, 1.3 seconds before the impact, the self-driving system determined the vehicle needed to apply the brakes to avoid a collision, but it didn’t stop automatically. Only Vasquez could stop the vehicle because of adjustments Uber made during testing.
Uber had taken away the ability for the self-driving car to brake itself in emergencies, although it could do so at lights and stop signs.
Investigators later looked at the speed of the car, braking ability, lighting conditions, and Vasquez’s half-second reaction time once she did see Herzberg.
Had Vasquez been paying attention, they found, she could have stopped the car 42.6 feet before the impact.
But Vasquez never touched the brake until after the crash.
The crash would not have happened even with a driver whose reaction time was twice as slow as Vasquez’s, had the driver been watching the road, according to the police investigation.
“For these reasons,” Tempe Detective Kasey Marsland wrote in the “avoidability analysis” more than a year ago “the crash was deemed entirely avoidable.”
Phoenix defense attorney Benjamin Taylor, who has no connection to the case, said both sides have an argument to make.
“Because she was behind the wheel, she has ultimate control,” he said. “It’s still on her to protect the public and protect her fellow citizens who are walking across the street in this case.”
He said the video evidence of Vasquez not watching the road is probably the best evidence for the county’s case against her.
The defense could argue she was not negligent because operating the car was in the scope of her duties for Uber, he said.
“Ultimately, Uber and the vehicle was the one that messed up,” he said, regarding what a defense attorney could argue. “Her job was to be behind the wheel just monitoring the situation. And you could argue the state is overcharging her. You could be on the road now and make a mistake and hit somebody and not get charged with a felony offense.”
Click here to view the indictment.