More than 121 years ago, a British woman was strolling the grounds of London’s Crystal Palace when she was hit by an almost experimental type of vehicle called a horseless carriage.
And so it happened that Bridget Driscoll became the first of many millions of pedestrians to be killed by automobiles.
An Arizona woman, identified as Elaine Herzberg, has achieved a similarly sorrowful and unwanted distinction, becoming the first pedestrian known to have been killed by an autonomous car. She, too, is unlikely to be the last.
Herzberg, 49, was pushing a bicycle carrying plastic shopping bags when on the night of March 18 she abruptly walked from a median into the street and into the path of an experimental Uber vehicle.
“The driver said it was a like a flash, the person walked out in front of them,” Tempe Police Chief Sylvia Moir was quoted by the San Francisco Chronicle as saying. The Uber vehicle, which had a human chaperon inside, was traveling about 38 mph in a 35 mph and made no attempt to brake.
But Moir told the Chronicle that, after studying videos inside and outside the self-driving car, it would have been difficult to avoid a collision with either a robotic or human driver, the paper says. Uber has since suspended autonomous vehicle operations in the cities where they were underway.
The crash in Tempe seemed as startling — and perhaps as likely, given the pioneering technology of autonomous driving and Uber’s reputation for pushing the limits — as the car crash that killed Driscoll in southeast London on a summer’s day more than a century ago. As in many motor vehicle accidents, there were also conflicting accounts of what happened on Aug. 17, 1896.
Driscoll — a 44-year-old mother of three who was identified in newspaper articles at the time as the wife of a laborer — had set off, umbrella in hand, to attend an event of the Catholic League of the Cross, a temperance organization. She was accompanied by her daughter, May, 16, and a friend, according to a detailed account published in the BBC News Magazine.
At the time, the Anglo-French Motor Carriage Co. was demonstrating the performance of three imported cars in the Dolphin Terrace, an area behind the Crystal Palace. The vehicle — which was manufactured in Germany and assembled in France — made a lot of noise. It had a top speed of 8 mph, but its operators had — at least according to some accounts — deliberately limited the speed to about 4 mph for the exhibition.
The driver, Arthur James Edsall, had two passengers aboard as the demonstration ride got underway. Driscoll’s daughter would later testify that he didn’t seem to know what he was doing — that he had zigzagged toward her mother and her — just before the crash.
“Stand back!” Edsall shouted, while ringing the car’s bell. A passenger described “a peculiar sensation” as the vehicle swerved.
The blow knocked Bridget Driscoll down, inflicting a fatal head injury. The driver right away hit the brakes — or “pulled up,” as Driscoll’s daughter testified, using language familiar to people who still used horses to get around.
Newspapers covered the accident without public outrage or hysteria, the BBC News Magazine says. But Driscoll’s death was so unusual that the matter landed in Coroners Court for a full-blown inquest. Testimony focused on the vehicle’s speed, the driver’s abilities, and whether the public had been given enough warning about the demonstration vehicles.
Florence Ashmore, a domestic servant who had witnessed the crash, said the vehicle had come on “at a tremendous pace, in fact, like a fire engine.”
Witnesses testified that Edsall had been driving for all of three weeks’ time and had not even been told which side of the road he should stay on. (Perhaps unsurprising, he also had no license.) Another said Edsall seemed “bewildered” and hesitated when Driscoll found herself in the vehicle’s path.
A passenger, Alice Standing, said the engine had been modified to let the car go faster than 4 mph. But another witness, a cabbie who had examined the vehicle, contradicted this, saying it had been fitted with a low-speed belt, according to an account in Ken Robinson’s book, “Out of Our Minds: The Power of Being Creative.”
Edsall — who was cautioned about the possible consequences of his testimony before he spoke, the Guardian reported — said he had been driving about four miles per hour. He said he had been under special instructions to go slowly when the plaza was crowded.
John Wood, a foreman for workers at the Crystal Palace, was called to testify as to whether there were sufficient public notices in the area warning people of the automobile demonstration. Wood said there were, according to the Guardian.
The jury deliberated six hours before returning a verdict of accidental death. The coroner, Percy Morrison, expressed hope that “such a thing would never happen again.”
We know how that turned out. The World Health Organization says more than 1.25 million people die each year in traffic, more than half of them pedestrians, cyclists or motorcyclists.
It also seems certain that Herzberg will not be the last person to be killed by a self-driving vehicle — but perhaps she might be the only one to die before the federal government imposes tighter restrictions on companies that are using public roadways like private test tracks. Instead, it is the Wild West, especially in Arizona, where a 2015 executive order by Gov. Doug Ducey (R) granted technology companies the right to operate self-driving vehicles without backup human drivers.
As Bloomberg News put it: “The technology behind autonomous vehicles has originated from coders in Silicon Valley, engineers in Detroit, and academic researchers in Pittsburgh. Much of it eventually lands on the streets of Arizona, a state that’s done more than any other to welcome tests of unproven self-driving software to public roads.”
Self-driving cars have great promise to reduce traffic fatalities someday, and we should be careful not to overreact when self-driving vehicles cause fatal crashes, given that many more humans do so every day. But just because computers are likely to do a better job driving than humans, that doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be a closely regulated roll-out until we get there.
—Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.
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