Police: Uber Test Driver on Cell Phone During Fatal Crash

PHOENIX (CN) – The operator of a self-driving Uber that struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe was streaming NBC’s “The Voice” on her phone at the time of the crash.

A report released by the Tempe Police Department on Thursday found that Rafaela Vasquez, the operator of the vehicle that night, repeatedly kept her eyes on the lower center console in the moments leading up to the crash.

The autonomous Volvo XC90 that Vasquez was sitting in crashed into 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg in March. Herzberg was walking across a street in Tempe, Ariz. with her bicycle when she was struck and killed by the Volvo.

The Volvo was traveling at 44 miles per hour when it hit Herzberg.

Video recordings from inside the vehicle show Vasquez smirking and laughing before the crash. Her hands could not be seen on the recordings, the report says.

Tempe police subpoenaed Vasquez’s phone records and obtained records from Hulu, which showed Vasquez was streaming an episode from NBC’s “The Voice” up until the time of the collision. Vasquez denied using her cellphone after the crash.

The report says that Vasquez looked up half a second before the crash, after keeping her head down for more than five seconds. Vasquez’s eyes were not on the roadway for almost 7 minutes of the nearly 22 minutes the vehicle was in motion.

FILE – In this Dec. 13, 2016 file photo, an Uber driverless car heads out for a test drive in San Francisco. Police in a Phoenix suburb say one of Uber’s self-driving vehicles has struck and killed a pedestrian. Police in the city of Tempe said Monday, March 19, 2018, that the vehicle was in autonomous mode with an operator behind the wheel when the woman walking outside of a crosswalk was hit. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg,File)

The report concluded that the crash would have been “entirely avoidable” if Vasquez had been paying attention. Vasquez did not hit the brake until after Herzberg had been hit.

The report notes that Uber did not inform its test drivers about when they need to take control of the vehicles.

Vehicular manslaughter charges could be brought against Vasquez.

The Yavapai County Attorney’s Office is currently reviewing the case after it was referred to the agency by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office due to a conflict of interest.

The National Transportation Safety Board determined in May that Uber’s system misidentified Herzberg as a vehicle. It also found the Volvo was being tested by Uber without the vehicle’s emergency braking system turned on.

Herzberg’s family entered into a settlement with Uber after her death.

Uber halted its testing of the vehicles after the crash, and laid off 300 test drivers.

In a statement, an Uber spokeswoman said the company was cooperating with ongoing investigations and performing its own safety review.

“We have a strict policy prohibiting mobile device usage for anyone operating our self-driving vehicles,” the spokeswoman said. “We plan to share more on the changes we’ll make to our program soon.”

 

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