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Uber safety driver charged over death of pedestrian struck by self-driving car

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An Uber safety driver who was behind the wheel of a self-driving car that struck and killed a woman in the US has been charged over the death.

Rafaela Vasquez pleaded not guilty to negligent homicide on Tuesday following the 2018 crash that resulted in the first recorded death involving a self-driving vehicle.

Elaine Herzberg, 49, died after she was struck by the car while walking a bike across a street at night in Tempe, Arizona.

Investigators examine the self-driving car involved in the fatal crash
Image: Investigators examine the self-driving car involved in the fatal crash

Uber escaped charges over the crash after prosecutors said last year that the company was not criminally liable.

Police have said previously that Vasquez was watching the TV show The Voice on her phone at the time of the crash and was repeatedly looking down instead of keeping her eyes on the road.

Rafael Vasquez is shown inside the Uber at the moment of impact
Image: Rafael Vasquez is shown inside the Uber at the moment of impact

The 46-year-old is now due to face trial in February.

She told investigators she did not use her mobile phones before the collision.

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However, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded her failure to monitor the road as she watched The Voice on her phone was the main cause of the crash.

The contributing factors cited by the board included Uber’s inadequate safety procedures and ineffective oversight of its drivers, Ms Herzberg’s decision to cross the street outside of a crosswalk, and the Arizona Department of Transportation’s insufficient oversight of autonomous vehicle testing.

Police at the crash scene in Arizona
Image: Police at the crash scene in Arizona

The board also concluded Uber’s de-activation of its automatic emergency braking system increased the risks associated with testing automated vehicles on public roads.

Instead of the system, Uber relied on the human backup driver to intervene.

The Uber system detected Ms Herzberg 5.6 seconds before the crash.

However it failed to determine whether she was a bicyclist, pedestrian or unknown object, or that she was headed into the vehicle’s path, the NTSB said.

The vehicle following the crash
Image: The vehicle damage following the crash

A toxicology report showed that Ms Herzberg tested positive for methamphetamine.

Before starting work as an Uber driver, Vasquez had previously spent more than four years in prison for two felony convictions – making false statements when obtaining unemployment benefits and attempted armed robbery, according to court records.

Uber reached a civil settlement with Ms Herzberg’s family several weeks after the accident.

Its driverless car programme, which was suspended in the wake of the crash, resumed last December.

Vasquez’s first name was listed on a driver’s licence as Rafael, but police say Vasquez identifies as a woman and goes by the first name of Rafaela.

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