The woman operating a self-driving Uber that hit and killed a pedestrian in Phoenix Arizona in March 2018 is facing a negligent homicide charge and possible prison time for not controlling the vehicle, prosecutors said Tuesday.
It was the first pedestrian fatality involving a self-driving vehicle in the country.
Rafaela Vasquez, now 46, was watching “The Voice” television program on one of her two phones when the Volvo SUV she was operating struck and killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg, according to a report from Tempe police.
“Distracted driving is an issue of great importance in our community,” Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel said Tuesday in a prepared statement. “When a driver gets behind the wheel of a car, they have a responsibility to control and operate that vehicle safely and in a law-abiding manner.”
A grand jury indicted Vasquez on Aug. 27. The “dangerous” Class 4 felony could bring a sentence of four to eight years in prison if she is convicted, according to Jennifer Liewer, a spokeswoman for the attorney’s office.
Vasquez pleaded not guilty Tuesday in Maricopa County Superior Court, and was released to pretrial services with ankle monitoring, according to Adel’s office.
A pretrial conference is set for Oct. 27.
Uber declined to comment about the charges on Tuesday.
An attorney for Vasquez could not immediately be reached.
Initially, then-Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery cited a conflict of interest in the case because his office had partnered with Uber on a ride-share campaign to encourage people not to drink and drive. The case was transferred to Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk, who declined to pursue charges against Uber a year after the accident.
Polk recommended further investigation into the crash to determine if Maricopa County could charge the driver. Tempe police continued to investigate the crash, closing Mill Avenue for a few hours last summer to conduct a lighting test of the crash scene. The fallout from the accident was broad, and who was at fault for it was the subject of significant debate. Tempe police Chief Sylvia Moir, who announced her resignation Tuesday, initially called the crash likely “unavoidable” for any driver.
The crash brought an end to Uber’s self-driving car tests in Tempe and Scottsdale and cast a shadow over the industry nationwide.