Tempe Police: Uber Self-Driving Car Didn't Brake 'Significantly' Before Killing Pedestrian

The Volvo XC 90 involved in Sunday's fatal collision with a pedestrian wasn't speeding, but didn't brake "significantly" before hitting the woman, police said.
The Volvo XC 90 involved in Sunday's fatal collision with a pedestrian wasn't speeding, but didn't brake "significantly" before hitting the woman, police said. Zombieite via Flickr
An Uber self-driving car wasn't speeding before it struck and killed a woman crossing a street on Sunday night, but didn't brake much, either, a Tempe police spokesman said.

Sergeant Ronald Elcock released several new details about the fatal collision on Monday afternoon following a crush of nationwide media attention about the incident.

"The safety of our citizens here in Tempe is of utmost importance." — Tempe police

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The Uber vehicle, which was in autonomous mode at the time of the crash, was a gray 2017 Volvo XC 90. Elcock misidentified the driver at the news conference on Monday as Rafael Vasquez, but Uber told Phoenix New Times the driver was actually 44-year-old Rafaela Vasquez.

Phoenix New Times asked an Uber representative on Monday if the driver was the 44-year-old Rafael Vasquez, who had a 2000 conviction and prison stay for attempted armed robbery.

Uber denied the person was the company's driver.

On Tuesday morning, following a media report about Vasquez's criminal history, the Uber representative said that Rafael and Rafaela were two names for the same person.

The victim, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, has a history of minor crimes and drug offenses; she spent more than a year in prison, getting out in December 2016, for cannabis and dangerous drug violations. Elcock said Herzberg may have been homeless. But impairment doesn't seem to be a factor for either Vasquez or Herzberg, he said.

Elcock declined to characterize any statements Vasquez may have made to police after the collision, which occurred about 10 p.m. Sunday on Mill Avenue just south of Curry Road. The Uber self-driving cars are equipped with several cameras; Elcock said video from several angles was obtained and is being reviewed.

Elcock said he watched the video and that it depicts the final seconds of the incident, including how the woman approached the vehicle.

The woman had crossed Mill Avenue from west to east, south of Curry, walking her bicycle, and the vehicle hit her as it was going northbound.

Mill Avenue becomes the eastern-side Mill Avenue Bridge north of Rio Salado Parkway. A speed-limit sign on the bridge about a quarter-mile south of Curry tells northbound drivers the speed limit is 45 mph. The Uber vehicle was traveling at about 40 mph when it hit Herzberg, Elcock said.

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That spot is east of the second, western-side Mill Avenue bridge that is restricted to southbound traffic, and east of the Marquee Theatre and a parking lot for the Tempe Town Lake. It can be a popular area for pedestrians, especially concertgoers, joggers, and lake visitors. Mid-street crossing is common there, and a walkway in the median between the two one-way roads across the two bridges probably encourages the practice.

Pedestrians can cross a street without using a crosswalk in many instances without risking a jaywalking ticket, but Arizona law requires pedestrians not using a crosswalk to yield to traffic in the road.

Elcock said the investigation is continuing and will be reviewed by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. Prosecutors will decide if anyone involved is criminally liable.

"Our hearts go out to the family and friends" of Herzberg, Elcock said. "The safety of our citizens here in Tempe is of utmost importance."

He urged pedestrians to use crosswalks whenever possible. But he declined to place greater blame on the victim, Vasquez, or Uber.

"The conclusions will come at the end of the investigation," he said.

Another matter Tempe PD and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery might need to figure out is whether to cite Vasquez since the vehicle was in fully autonomous mode.

Governor Doug Ducey, who enticed Uber to test its vehicles in Arizona with the promise of fewer rules, remained focused on his Safe Schools Arizona project on Monday. He had not commented about the collision as of 5 p.m. The governor's office later released a comment to New Times: "We are aware of the accident. Our prayers are with the victim, and our hearts go out to her family. Our office is in communication with law enforcement. Public safety is our top priority, and the Governor's latest Executive Order provides enhanced enforcement measures and clarity on responsibility in these accidents."

On March 1, Ducey filed a new executive order that ended the free-for-all, mandating a type of registration and other requirements for the companies. The move followed questions about the safety of the test vehicles, and the possibility that Waymo, Uber, and other companies now plan to put cars with no backup drivers on Arizona roads.

Earlier this month, Ducey's staff told New Times that in a collision, the corporation that operates the vehicles would be responsible and the company could be held criminally liable just like a person. However, local police had previously said that if someone was behind the wheel of such a vehicle, that person would receive the citation for any suspected violations.

Tempe police plan to release more information about the fatal crash on Tuesday afternoon.

Uber has ceased operations of its self-driving car program for now in Arizona and elsewhere. The company also canceled a March 22 media event about the cars.

(UPDATE: Uber asked that New Times attribute the bad information about Vasquez and subsequent correction to the company rather than a specific spokesperson. Indeed, it's likely the representative was not speaking for herself on that matter.)
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.