Waymo’s latest pitch for driverless vehicles focuses on a Gilbert woman whose 14-year-old son was killed by a red-light runner.
Michael Allanson died blocks from his Mesa home when an 82-year-old man ran a red light and hit the ninth-grader who was in a crosswalk at 64th Street.
“If the man who killed Michael was in a self-driving car, Michael would be here today,” said Barbara Hoffman in the video that is now airing. “Michael would be 29.”
Hoffman is the executive director for Red Means Stop Traffic Safety Alliance, which has partnered with self-driving technology company Waymo on a public education campaign called “Let’s Talk Self-Driving.”
Other partners include national and local organizations, such as the Foundation for Blind Children and Foundation for Senior Living.
Hoffman, who moved to Gilbert a year after Michael’s death in 2004, said human error causes 94 percent of all traffic crashes.
“If self-driving cars are on the road, we would be much safer because human error is taken out of the equation,” Hoffman said last week.
Red-light runners cause hundreds of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries each year, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported.
In 2017, 890 people in the country were killed and an estimated 132,000 people were injured in red-light running crashes, according to the institute’s latest data. Over half of those killed were pedestrians, bicyclists and people in other vehicles who were hit by the red-light runners, the data said.
Most recently in late April, a 79-year-old man died after his car was T-boned in a Scottsdale intersection by a driver who ran a red light.
Hoffman said when Red Means Stop Traffic Safety Alliance began in 1991, Phoenix was No. 1 in the country for most red-light running fatalities. Since then, there has been some improvement but the Phoenix metropolitan area still ranks in the top 10 metro areas for those fatalities, she added.
“I think the flat street roads give the condition you want to speed, not that you want to, but you end up speeding,” Hoffman said.
She added she grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the roads are curvy and hilly and drivers can’t pick up the speed too much.
She said drivers here end up going 15 mph over the speed limit and when a traffic signal changes to red, they can’t stop safely and push on the gas instead to power through the intersection.
The Valley’s weather also plays a role, Hoffman said.
“If you live in an area where there’s rain, snow and ice, you have to drive slower,” she said. “Here the weather is great most days of the year so it contributes to erratic and faster driving.”
Hoffman joined the Alliance in 2004, first as a volunteer after her son was killed because she felt justice was not served.
The driver who killed Michael was ticketed for running a red light and received a $250 fine, Hoffman said.
“He wasn’t punished much at all (because) he stopped, was not drunk or speeding” she said. “It was hard for me. He didn’t just run a red light; he killed my son.”
Waymo kicked off its public education campaign in 2017 to increase awareness and understanding about the new technology, touting it has driven over 10 million miles since 2009.
The company serves Ahwatukee, Chandler, Gilbert, Tempe and Mesa and has plans to double the size of its East Valley operations later this year by opening a new service center in Mesa.
Hoffman said her Scottsdale-based nonprofit reached out to Waymo to participate in its education campaign.
Hoffman was part of the company’s early riders program and is now a Waymo One rider. “I feel safer in one of those cars than if one of my friends picked me up,” she said.
Unlike people who can become easily distracted behind the wheel, a self-driving car obeys all traffic laws and stops at all stop signs and red lights, said Hoffman, who talks about her loss to help change drivers’ bad habits.
“Lots of people think they can multitask and when they hear the story that people do get killed, whenever you hear a personal story and meet someone, it means more than driving by a crash where there’s no personal connection,” she said. “There are people who won’t change until maybe they lose a loved one or cause the death of someone.”
Hoffman acknowledged the public is still reluctant to embrace autonomous vehicles but will eventually come around once they see the number of vehicle-related deaths drop.
She said autonomous vehicles would curb accidents such as those caused by wrong-way drivers and drunken drivers.
“I know a lot of people are resisting this change but everyone resisted against elevators when it became automated,” she said. “People were afraid of that, no human manning it.”
She said people are fearful that computers are driving their cars but in fact, computer systems are already in cars. She said the mindset is already changing with the younger generation.
“They have no interest in driving but would rather take Uber,” she said.
Although it’s been 15 years since her only son’s death, not a day goes by when Hoffman doesn’t think about him.
She said many parents who lose a child feel the children will be forgotten because they never become adults.
“I do have his photo on the back of my phone,” she said. “I feel everything I do for traffic safety is done in the memory of Michael.”