Tempe Police Chief Regrets Premature Blabbing About Self-Driving Uber Crash

Elaine Herzberg’s bicycle following her fatal impact with a Uber self-driving vehicle on March 18.

Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir said she regrets how statements she made about the fatal self-driving Uber crash in March became part of the story and took attention away from the tragedy.

Moir’s assertion to two newspapers that the Uber crash was “unavoidable” made international headlines and created an early impression for the public in a high-profile case that later proved incorrect, critics say. She also has been criticized in a much lower-profile case for comments she made about her predecessor to a potential employer.

Last month, Tempe police investigators released their findings that the crash was “entirely avoidable.” Although pedestrian Elaine Herzberg had been crossing Mill Avenue outside of a crosswalk, police believe Uber driver Rafaela Vasquez was watching TV on her phone instead of performing her duty as backup for the vehicle’s experimental autonomous driving system.

Moir stopped short of saying she was sorry for making the incorrect assertion, or that she should not have said it.

“My regret is this has been a distraction from the tragedy on both sides,” she said in an interview with Phoenix New Times. “It bothers me.”

Critics say her statements embarrassed the department and eroded the public’s trust.

One of those critics, a local lawyer helping Tempe’s former police chief, Tom Ryff, sue the city for $1 million in a separate case, said that in both the case he’s handling and the Uber statements, Moir has shown professional “immaturity.”

In hindsight, Moir’s decisions in both the Uber and former police chief’s cases don’t appear to be good ones.

On March 19, the day after the fatal Uber crash, Moir shared her opinions about the crash in exclusive interviews to the San Francisco Chronicle and Arizona Republic. Yet her department’s investigation had only just begun.

“Exclusive: Tempe police chief says early probe shows no fault by Uber,” blared the Chronicle’s headline.

Based on exterior videos from the Uber car involved in the crash, Moir told reporter Carolyn Said, “It’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.”

She acknowledged the “potential” that charges could be sought against Vasquez.

But the day after that, she told the Republic in another exclusive interview that the crash was “unavoidable.”

Media outlets all over the world picked up the story of Moir’s conclusions. Public interest was high in Uber’s possible role in the crash, and whether something went wrong with the autonomous technology.

On June 21, Tempe investigators released the report that contradicted Moir following a three-month probe conducted with the National Transportation Safety Board.

Besides declaring the crash avoidable, police are seeking a manslaughter charge against Vasquez, who was hired by Uber to watch the road as the experimental car rolled along in autonomous mode.

Vasquez told police her phone was in the car but that she hadn’t been using it at the time. A search warrant for cellphone records turned up evidence that her personal phone had been streaming an episode of The Voice up to the minute of the crash. Interior video of the autonomous vehicle showed that Vasquez had been looking below the dashboard at something repeatedly in the moments before the impact.

Moreover, as Phoenix New Times wrote in April, illumination at the crash scene wasn’t as bad in reality as the Uber video showed. Any alert driver, going 38 mph like Vasquez was, could have avoided Herzberg.

But Moir said she didn’t know if she could have evaded Herzberg at night in a car traveling the same speed.

The Yavapai County Attorney’s Office, which received the case after the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office declared a conflict of interest, hasn’t decided whether Vasquez should be charged.

Moir downplayed the idea that she’d given anyone an “exclusive,” even though at the same time the chief gave the comments to the two newspapers, she was declining to return calls to any other news outlets, including New Times. Her recent talk with New Times is the first time she’s spoken to a reporter about the Uber crash since the March interviews.

For full story visit: https://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/tempe-police-chief-moir-ryff-uber-autonomous-driving-10556991