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‘It’s a wake-up call’: After car crash, a manslaughter charge in bizarre Tesla case

The Tesla plant  in Fremont, Calif.
The Tesla plant in Fremont, Calif.
(Associated Press )
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Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Thursday, Jan. 20. I’m Justin Ray.

For some, self-driving cars have been thought of as the future of auto-motives.

Not only do they sound more convenient, but by taking away the possibility of human error, they may potentially save lives. While Americans spent less time in their vehicles in 2020 due to the pandemic, about 38,680 people died in crashes, “the largest projected number of fatalities since 2007,” the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported.

Unfortunately, it seems we can’t yet depend on self-driving cars, a concern that a 2019 incident in Gardena underscores.

The crash

On Dec. 29, 2019, a Honda Civic pulled up to a Gardena intersection. The traffic light was green. As the car proceeded through, a 2016 Tesla Model S on Autopilot exited a freeway, ran through a red light and crashed into the Civic.

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The Civic’s driver, Gilberto Alcazar Lopez, and his passenger, Maria Guadalupe Nieves-Lopez, were killed instantly. Nearly two years later, prosecutors in Los Angeles County filed two counts of vehicular manslaughter against the driver of the Tesla, 27-year-old Kevin George Aziz Riad.

Riad, who works as a limousine service driver, has pleaded not guilty and is free on bail while the case is pending. His attorney did not respond to a request for comment to The Times on Tuesday.

Aftermath

Experts believe it is the first felony prosecution in the United States of a driver accused of causing a fatality while using a partially automated driver-assist system. As such, the case represents a milestone in the increasingly confusing world of automated driving.

“It’s a wake-up call for drivers,” Alain Kornhauser, director of the self-driving car program at Princeton University, previously told The Times. “It certainly makes us, all of a sudden, not become so complacent in the use of these things that we forget about the fact that we’re the ones that are responsible — not only for our own safety but for the safety of others.”

Tesla is of course owned by Elon Musk, who has a beef with the Golden State. A representative for the company, which notoriously disbanded its media relations department, could not be reached for comment, The Times reported.

There are other Tesla incidents under scrutiny.

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And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

While California continues to see disturbing rises in COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, there are some early signs that the unprecedented Omicron wave is slowing. The shift is uneven across the state, but the numbers suggest California could be reaching a crest in the latest surge. Here are what the numbers show in various areas of the state. Los Angeles Times

Lyndsey Marko of Echo Park takes a free PCR COVID-19 test at Echo Park
Lyndsey Marko of Echo Park takes a free PCR COVID-19 test at Echo Park on Tuesday.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

L.A. STORIES

Column: Dear Karen Bass and others, L.A. needs a real homeless plan we haven’t heard before. After 20 years in power as a councilman and mayor, Eric Garcetti will soon be leaving City Hall in the homelessness capital of the U.S. Out of the gates and in the front of the pack to replace him are Rep. Karen Bass, Councilmen Kevin De León and Joe Buscaino, and City Atty. Mike Feuer, among others. Bass rolled out a plan that calls for 15,000 people to be housed in her first year in office. But, The Times’ Steve Lopez says, we’ve heard it all before. “Maybe Bass would in fact be a more decisive leader, but the bar hasn’t been set particularly high,” Lopez writes. “In the interest of the unhoused and the housed, 2022 must be the year we do better.” Los Angeles Times

Rep. Karen Bass speaks to supporters at Los Angeles Trade Tech College.
Rep. Karen Bass speaks to supporters at Los Angeles Trade Tech College at the kickoff to her mayoral campaign.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times/Los Angeles Times)
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POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT

As Jamal Simmons was taking over as Vice President Kamala Harris’ communications director, his old tweets started making the rounds on social media. Not long after news organizations on Jan. 6 published stories on Simmons’ appointment, Twitter erupted. Many on the left accused Simmons of advocating for the arrest of immigrants in the U.S. illegally. Meanwhile, some on the right lauded him. Los Angeles Times

Jamal Simmons speaks onstage
Jamal Simmons speaks onstage at the Elections 2016: The Wild Ride to the White House panel on the Times Center Stage during 2016 Advertising Week New York on September 27, 2016 in New York City.
(John Lamparski/Getty Images for Advertising Week New York)

One man’s lonely journey through California’s plan to end homelessness. Jackie Botts writes this terrific, gripping piece about a man named Fernando Maya, whose life was changed by California’s pandemic response to housing people in the state. “Through Project Roomkey, the statewide effort to take vulnerable and elderly people off the street, he was given the keys to a hotel room of his own that June. Later, Maya would credit the program — and Gov. Gavin Newsom — with having ended his homelessness,” Botts writes. CalMatters

CRIME, COURTS AND POLICING

Fresno County sheriff’s detectives have recovered the body of Missy Hernandez, the 30-year-old who had been missing since December. Her body was found in an aqueduct. Authorities say detectives used digital evidence to identify several locations to search for her. “There truly was not only relief and closure for our personnel but also for Missy’s family,” said Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims. ABC30

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HEALTH AND THE ENVIRONMENT

As Omicron surges, California students demand more from adults. One of the most frustrating parts of the pandemic has been the inconsistent messages from public health agencies. From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) down to local and county agencies, constantly shifting policies have led to fatigue. This has been especially maddening for those in school, and California students are demanding better from adults. “We have more than 400 (COVID) cases on our campus right now, and no one seems to care,” Redondo Union High School junior Sam Miller told the school newspaper. “People don’t wear their masks properly. They don’t wear the right masks.” Capital and Main

CALIFORNIA CULTURE

Nearly one-third of Asian Americans in the San Gabriel Valley said they or their family members have experienced anti-Asian hate during the COVID-19 pandemic, with most incidents involving verbal attacks, a new survey found. Nearly half of those surveyed said they feel less safe than before the pandemic, and the majority said they are more “vigilant and defensive” when they leave home, according to the survey released Wednesday by the Asian Youth Center and Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles. Los Angeles Times

Jen Ho Lee, a 76-year-old South Korean immigrant,  in her apartment in Los Angeles.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Well that’s impressive! A high school student in Davis, Calif. received a perfect score on his SAT exam. Apurva Mishra’s father called television station KCRA when the results arrived (my favorite detail of the story), ecstatic that his son scored a 1600, placing him in the 99th percentile in the nation among test takers. “It was a really surprising thing for me because I didn’t know I would be able to perform like that,” 17-year-old Mishra said. “I wanted to get there and I did get there, and that was the most amazing thing to me.” KCRA

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CALIFORNIA ALMANAC

Los Angeles: Sunny, 75 San Diego: Sunny 70 San Francisco: 61 San Jose: Sunny 66 Fresno: Overcast 64 Sacramento: Overcast 61

AND FINALLY

Today’s California memory is from Donna Petersen:

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In 1962 as a 6-year-old, I walked with my sister (7) and friends from across the street (12 and 13 years old), to the beach for the day. We lived on Ukiah Street in Oxnard, and with no money, no water, no car, no cellphones, we spent the day on Strand beach, then walked home.

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to essentialcalifornia@latimes.com.

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