Autonomous Vehicle Fatality: a Wake up Call

March 30, 2018

T4MA, MassBike, and WalkBoston

On March 18, an autonomous vehicle (AV) killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona. Initial evidence suggests that the backup driver was distracted, and the vehicle did not make any attempt to avoid the collision. This should serve as a wake-up call. We believe that with the right policies and procedures in place, autonomous vehicle testing can be safe. However, it is clear that at least in some conditions, this is not yet the case.

For any AV testing on public roads, state and local government must enforce rules mandating that a backup driver is present, is paying attention, and is able to take over in an emergency at any time. Autonomous vehicle technology is far from proven, and still not ready for widespread deployment. Distracted driving laws and speed limits must continue to apply, be strictly adhered to, and be enforced. In addition, all testing must be done transparently. While the testing regime in Boston’s Seaport District has been encouraging thus far, the tragedy in Arizona is a reminder of what is at stake.

We believe that a transportation future that includes autonomous vehicles can be significantly safer than what we have today, when close to 40,000 Americans are killed on our roads annually. But without proactive public policy on AVs, things could actually get worse: less safety for pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers, more sprawl and traffic, greater inequity, and worse environmental impacts.

AV technology must make it safer to walk and bike, not less safe. AVs must safely interact with pedestrians and cyclists, in any weather conditions and at any time of day. As the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) recently stated, “We cannot afford for companies’ race-to-market to become a race-to-the-bottom for safety.”

While we await a formal report from the National Transportation Safety Board and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, it is not too early to be developing policies to bring us closer to the transportation future we want. And we need to continue to implement policies and fund investments to ensure that our streets accommodate all users, not just cars.


MassBike and WalkBoston are members of the statewide Transportation for Massachusetts (T4MA) coalition for better transportation. For more information on T4MA’s work in this important area, please visit http://www.t4ma.org/fastforward.


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