The Uber test vehicle that struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, has been under public scrutiny since March of 2018. But we never heard a lot about the safety driver behind the wheel. So much attention was given to addressing whether or not the autonomous systems on the SUV should or could have seen Elaine Herzberg — and stopped the car before the tragedy occurred — that it became the overriding narrative.
But it really shouldn’t have, as some of the earliest video footage appeared to show that Uber’s safety operator had entirely tuned out of the driving experience in the moments leading up to the incident. Fortunately, Maricopa County Superior Court and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were keeping tabs while the rest of us were not. In fact, the former decided to charge Rafael Vasquez (who also goes by Rafaela) with negligent homicide late last month.
Vasquez pled not guilty during an initial court appearance on Tuesday and was released with the trial scheduled for February of 2021. According to Reuters, the court stipulated that Vasquez would need to wear an ankle monitor until things were settled. Unfortunately, the long term prognosis is not good.
While the NTSB was highly critical of Uber’s safety systems and testing routine, Vasquez probably received the harshest review following its extensive investigation into the incident. In November, the board announced the driver’s failure to act was ultimately what caused the entire incident “because she was visually distracted throughout the trip by her personal cell phone.”
A Tempe police report likewise stated that Vasquez was repeatedly looking down instead of maintaining focus on the road ahead, which became Uber’s out from having to accept any liabilities. Local investigations previously suggested that the crash was “entirely avoidable” and noted that Vasquez was streaming “The Voice” TV program at the time of the crash.
“Distracted driving is an issue of great importance in our community,” said Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel. “When a driver gets behind the wheel of a car, they have a responsibility to control and operate that vehicle safely.”