MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. (KTVU) - Federal investigators say a fatal crash involving a Tesla driver last year was made worse because CalTrans roadway safety equipment was not working at the time. NTSB investigators say a broken freeway attenuator made the fatal crash on southbound Highway 101 worse.
“When the accident occurred, this crash attenuator was not operable. Had it been operable, the results may have been less severe,” said Christopher O’Neil, a spokesman for the NTSB based in Washington, D.C.
Monday the NTSB issued a safety report as part of its investigation into that fatal accident that killed 38-year old engineer Walter Huang. The agency calls on CalTrans to repair damaged equipment such as attenuators more quickly, and better track repair work. On March 23, 2018, Huang, operating his Tesla Model X on autopilot, crashed into the attenuator on southbound 101 at the split with Highway 85 in Mountain View.
“The vehicle got confused trying to find the lane on the left-hand side and veered towards the middle of the road and that’s where it caused the crash,” said San Jose State University engineer Dr. Fred Barez, who chairs the school's Department of Aviation & Technology.
NTSB officials say this attenuator has been involved in more collisions than any other in CalTrans District 4, including one 11 days before Huang lost his life. But on that day, the maintenance supervisor and crew were off work, according to the NTSB. The report says the supervisor worked over the weekend to coordinate a replace attenuator. But that was too late for Huang, who left behind a wife and two small children.
“It’s about having a system in place that allows both CalTrans and CHP to work together to ensure that (broken attenuators) they’re reported. And then that they’re repaired,” said O’Neil. Added Dr. Barez, “That’s gonna benefit everybody, not just the people driving autopilot vehicles. It’s gonna help anybody.”
CalTrans issued a statement in response to the NTSB safety recommendation, saying, “Safety remains CalTrans top priority. We are in the process of reviewing (the) report in conjunctions with the California State Transit Agency to determine the next steps.”
NTSB officials say they haven’t determined probable cause in the 2018 accident and don’t expect to have the investigation completed until next year. But they do want CalTrans to implement a corrective plan that guarantees repair of highway safety equipment.