On March 23, 2018, San Mateo resident Wei Huang was driving his Tesla Model X southbound on Highway 101 with the car's "Autopilot" function on when the vehicle reportedly veered left and hit the median between Highway 101 and the Highway 85 carpool flyover lane in Mountain View at about 71 miles per hour.
The crash breached the Tesla's high-voltage battery, causing the car to catch fire. A bystander pulled Huang out of the car before it was engulfed in flames and he was taken to the hospital, where he later died from his injuries.
Questions — and blame — followed quickly in the aftermath of the crash. Tesla released multiple blog posts defending its Autopilot system, including one less than a week after the incident in which company officials blamed the severity of the crash on a missing protective freeway barrier known as a crash attenuator. The device is meant to slow down a car and reduce injuries in the event of an accident.
Tesla officials said the attenuator had "either been removed or crushed" in a prior crash and had not been fully replaced, leaving little cushion between the tip of the barrier and the cement median.
"We have never seen this level of damage to a Model X in any other crash," according to the company statement.
Caltrans said little at the time when asked about the attenuator, dodging direct questions from the Voice in favor of an emailed statement that said the agency was reviewing the facts of the incident and cooperating with the National Transportation Safety Board.
"Safety is our top priority and Caltrans will carefully evaluate the investigation's findings and take appropriate action," Caltrans District 4 spokesman Robert Haus said.
It's time for Caltrans to show that it means it.
On Monday, Sept. 9, the NTSB released a new report that found the attenuator in the Tesla crash had been damaged to the point of being "nonoperational" in an accident 11 days prior. The California Highway Patrol responded to that crash on March 12 but didn't notify Caltrans that the attenuator had been damaged, a violation of policy and agreements between the agencies. Caltrans maintenance workers discovered the damage on March 20 — three days before the Tesla crash — and notified their supervisor. No date was scheduled to fix the device, in part due to staffing shortages and trouble finding a new attenuator, and it wasn't replaced until three days after the fatal accident, according to the report.
Caltrans' inability to promptly fix a crucial safety device at a major freeway interchange would be concerning enough as an isolated incident, but this wasn't its first failure, according to the NTSB, which found that Caltrans has "systematic problems" with quickly repairing safety devices on state roadways — particularly at the spot where Huang lost his life. The crash location on Highway 101 has a history of problems, with the attenuator needing to be repaired and replaced more frequently than any other left-exit crash attenuator in the region, the NTSB found. In three years leading up to the Tesla crash, drivers hit the attenuator at least five times, including one fatal accident. Although Caltrans' policy mandates the replacement of safety hardware within one week, the agency historically has not adhered to this requirement, according to the NTSB.
The NTSB report clearly outlines a breakdown in communication and policy between the CHP and Caltrans. The CHP neglected to tell Caltrans the attenuator had been damaged; Caltrans failed to fix it before the fatal crash. We don't know whether a working attenuator could have saved Huang's life, but we do know that the device, which is designed to lessen the impact of a crash, was inoperable, and that it was intact when a Prius driver hit it 11 days prior and survived. And thanks to the NTSB, we now know Caltrans has habitually failed to follow its own policy of replacing safety hardware within a week after it's damaged, an alarming finding considering how many of us rely on state roadways on a daily basis.
The Sept. 9 report calls on Caltrans to implement a "correction action plan" that guarantees the timely repair of traffic safety devices, including attenuators, and improved tracking of compliance with roadway repair timelines. The need to quickly develop and carry out this plan is evident from the NTSB's findings, but Caltrans' initial response to the report lacks a sense of urgency — in fact, it echoes the statement the agency released to the Voice in the days after the Tesla crash.
"Safety remains Caltrans' top priority," spokesman Matt Rocco said in an email. "We are in the process of reviewing today's report in conjunction with the California State Transportation Agency to determine the next steps."
With more cars clogging already jammed roadways and more companies putting self-driving technology to the test, it's essential that Caltrans swiftly adopt the changes necessary to identify and fix safety deficiencies in a timely manner and show the millions of Californians that depend on state roadways that safety is in fact its top priority.