Caltrans rebuked by federal safety agency over Tesla crash on 101

The National Transportation Safety Board says Caltrans failed to fix this Highway 101 safety barrier in Mountain View before a fatal March 23, 2018, collision that killed Apple engineer Walter Huang. KGO-TV photo via AP.
The National Transportation Safety Board says Caltrans failed to fix this Highway 101 safety barrier in Mountain View before a fatal March 23, 2018, collision that killed Apple engineer Walter Huang. KGO-TV photo via AP.

The fatal crash of a Tesla in Autopilot mode on Highway 101 in Mountain View prompted federal safety regulators to recommend Monday (Sept. 9) that Caltrans move faster to repair highway safety barriers damaged by vehicles.

The National Transportation Safety Board report says Caltrans failed to fix a Highway 101 safety barrier before the fatal March 23, 2018, collision that killed Apple engineer Walter Huang.

The barrier had been damaged 11 days earlier by a 2010 Toyota Prius traveling in excess of 75 mph that crashed against the attenuator, a cushion that protects vehicles from hitting the end of concrete lane dividers. The 31-year-old driver survived the crash and was treated for relatively minor injuries, the NTSB said.

CHP didn’t tell Caltrans

The CHP responded to the March 12 crash but did not notify Caltrans of the damage as required, the board said.

On March 23, Huang’s 2017 Tesla Model X was in Autopilot and traveling at 71 mph when it crashed against the same attenuator. Huang died at a hospital from his injuries.

“The safety benefits of a functioning crash attenuator were demonstrated by the differences between the level of driver injuries in the two March 2018 crashes that took place at this location,” the NTSB said.

What caused the Tesla to crash remains under investigation. A final report for that crash and a safety report on electric vehicles are expected to be completed next year, the NTSB said.

“Rather than wait to complete all facets of this crash investigation, we have moved ahead with issuing this safety recommendation report in the interest of motorists’ safety,” said Robert Molloy, Director of the NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety.

The recommendation was issued to the California State Transportation Agency, the state agency that provides oversight for the Caltrans, and the CHP.

Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said the department is reviewing the NTSB report to determine its next steps but declined to answer questions.
“Safety remains Caltrans top priority,” he said.

Previous crash on 101

The NTSB said it previously identified problems with the maintenance of California highways in a fatal 2016 crash in San Jose involving a bus that crashed against a barrier on Highway 101 that had been damaged 44 days earlier and had not been fixed. The January 2016 Greyhound bus crash killed two and injured over a dozen others.

“In those 44 days, a retroreflective marker was not replaced, and that missing marker contributed to the motorcoach crash,” the agency said.

Transportation for America, a nonpartisan group that advocates for more federal highway funding, ranks California’s roads as second-worst in the country with only 17% in good condition.

Jason Levine, an attorney and executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit consumer group, declined comment on whether the NTSB report could be advantageous for plaintiffs suing California over poor highway infrastructure. But he said the NTSB’s findings show the crucial role that infrastructure plays in car safety.

“Just as higher priority should be given to safety standards and equipment for new cars, policy makers at all levels must recognize a lack of road repair resources may have life or death consequences,” Levine said.

— From staff and wire reports

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