Self-driving technology and human distraction played roles in the death last March of Elaine Herzberg, the pedestrian struck and killed by an Uber vehicle in autonomous mode.
But did other factors contribute to the incident?
Two members of Herzberg’s family have filed a claim against Tempe, Ariz., accusing the city of designing a hazardous walkway adjacent to the road on which she was struck. Herzberg’s husband and daughter are seeking a combined $ 10 million in damages.
The claim was filed last fall and surfaced this month when the Arizona Republic reported on it. It comes as safety advocates call on transportation officials to reconsider the way infrastructure is designed in light of a growing number of pedestrian fatalities across the country.
“The fact is, we’re a long way out from putting a lot of faith into new technology to protect us,” said Emiko Atherton, director of the National Complete Streets Coalition. “But we can protect ourselves now with tools we have that can lead to safer street designs.”
Atherton co-authored “Dangerous By Design 2019,” a report by Smart Growth America issued last month that examined the spike in pedestrian fatalities over the past decade and urged policymakers to change how roadways are designed and funded, as well as the way their performance is measured.
While the number of vehicle occupant fatalities has decreased 6.1 percent since 2008, the number of pedestrian fatalities has increased 35 percent during the same time frame, according to federal figures. Pedestrian deaths reached 6,080 in 2016. They declined slightly in 2017 to 5,977, but remain near quarter-century highs.
“We’re seeing vehicle miles traveled going up, and along with that, we’re seeing more people getting struck and killed on the road, and our street design is definitely not keeping up,” Atherton said. “We’re continuing to build roads that are supposed to alleviate congestion, and they’re not designed for pedestrians. … On top of that, we have more people displaced into suburbs that were never built to be walkable.”
Herzberg’s death captured attention because of the involvement of self-driving technology. She’s the first pedestrian in the U.S. killed by a vehicle operating under automated control. But the broader circumstances surrounding her death are similar to countless other pedestrian crashes.
It occurred in the Sun Belt, where multilane, car-friendly roadways were built often after World War II. “Dangerous By Design” reports that 19 of the 20 most dangerous cities for pedestrians are in the southern third of the country. Detroit is the only northern city.
Arizona had the fourth-highest rate of pedestrian fatalities in the country, according to a separate report published by the Governors Highway Safety Association.
Shortly before 10 p.m. on March 18, 2018, Herzberg pushed a bicycle from a traffic median across the four northbound lanes of Mill Avenue in Tempe, when she was struck. The traffic island had paths that crisscrossed. But there were no crosswalks that corresponded with the paths. There were signs that warned pedestrians to use a crosswalk that was 360 feet away — but those signs faced the street.
A city spokeswoman declined comment on the claim.
The number of pedestrian fatalities may worsen before getting better. State departments of transportation are required to set safety performance targets by the Federal Highway Administration, projecting the number of pedestrians, bicyclists and other nonmotorized road users who might be killed.
In their most recent benchmarking, in 2017, 18 of 50 states set performance targets that listed pedestrian fatality targets at higher numbers than their last reported annual figures, according to “Dangerous By Design.”
While executives from autonomous-vehicle companies say that self-driving technology has the potential to dramatically reduce traffic deaths, the pedestrian report notes that AVs may “not always be able to reliably detect people walking and biking.”
It further warns that federal legislation regarding autonomous vehicles, as proposed during the previous Congress, would strip cities of control of how these vehicles are deployed on their streets. Atherton said, “Looking at the fatality in Arizona, there’s a lot of misplaced hope with the technology, and the fact is we don’t know what’s going to happen.”