As the technologies in self-driving cars reach maturity it seems almost inevitable that there will come a time when actively driving a car will feel optional. For some it will be tempting to think of a self-driving car like a taxi. But thus far, the safety record of self-driving cars has left open doubts about how much drivers can rely on them without keeping an eye on what’s going on around the car. An important issue related to this is whether it will be safe to operate a self-driving car after drinking enough alcohol to be over the legal limit.
The legal framework for self-driving cars is still in its infancy. Given the enormous complexity of a self-driving car’s technologies, lawmakers probably will be slow to allow fully autonomous vehicles to hit the roads. Nevertheless, many states, including Nevada, have adopted preliminary rules that provide guidance for driver-operators and the manufacturers of self-driving vehicles. There are two key reasons why “drunk operating” is not a legal option:
- There is no exception for drunk driving and driverless cars. Being behind the wheel of a self-driving car is still driving, even though the operator isn’t touching any controls and may even be ignoring the roadway. Although in theory operating a self-driving car may be a safer alternative to driving drunk, it is still not legal. Operating a self-driving car while drunk is a crime and can lead to accidents and injury liability.
- Safety mechanisms rely on an alert driver. Under existing law, a self-driving vehicle in Nevada must include a safety system that will turn control of the vehicle over to the operator in the event that the car’s systems cease to function as expected. This means that the operator always needs to be ready to take control. Many of the accidents involving self-driving cars have featured situations where the driver was not paying attention to the road. A driver who is reading a book or sleeping can’t do anything in the event that the car’s sensors fail to detect a pedestrian. A drunk operator’s reaction times will be even slower than those fo a sober operator.
The fact that an operator of a self-driving vehicle was drunk at the time of an accident will be a major factor in any ensuing litigation brought by someone who was injured in the accident. The operator may attempt to lay the blame on inadequacies in the car’s design, and perhaps the plaintiff will want to pursue action there as well. But the operator is still responsible for causing the accident, even if he or she wasn’t actively controlling the car at the time.
If you or a loved one is injured in an accident involving a self-driving car, do not let the fact that the car was autonomous distract you from the human operator’s responsibility for the car. Accidents where the self-driving car is at fault will present new and interesting questions for lawyers to resolve. For over four decades the attorneys at Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez have helped clients seek compensation for injuries caused by car accidents. For a free attorney consultation about your case call us today at 702-388-4476 or send us a request on our contact page.
Over the next few years self-driving cars are going to become more common on Nevada’s roads as the technology improves and vehicles become affordable for a wider swath of consumers. The convenience of letting the car do most of the driving is undeniable, but as recent events have shown, autonomous vehicles aren’t perfect. Self-driving cars have been involved in a range of accidents, including slow-speed collisions and, recently, a fatal accident involving a pedestrian in Arizona. Such accidents will raise new and interesting legal questions for insurers, lawyers, and the courts to consider. Among the important questions that must be considered is the potential liability of a “driver” of a self-driving car that is involved in an accident.
Nevada law requires operators to stay attentive
The rules governing self-driving cars in Nevada are still in their infancy. Designed to allow developers to test the technology, the rules are far from fleshed out. Aside from a few skeletal rules, like insurance and licensing requirements, there is still a lot of work to be done that will be based, in large part, on the results of current experiments.
One of the oddities about autonomous vehicles is that they don’t have “drivers” in the conventional sense. The person in the driver’s seat is neither a driver nor a passive passenger. Instead, he or she is deemed to be the car’s “operator,” with responsibilities for keeping an eye on what the car is doing. The concept of the operator is a new one with seemingly contradictory features. Even though Nevada law recognizes that an operator “is not required to actively drive an autonomous vehicle” (NRS 482A.200) an operator is still expected to be ready to take control in the event that the autonomous system fails (NRS 482A.080).
Existing law places the onus on the designers of autonomous systems to ensure that the systems will “alert the human operator to take manual control of the autonomous vehicle if a failure of the autonomous technology has been detected and such failure affects the ability of the autonomous technology to operate safely the autonomous vehicle.” This relies upon the system to recognize its own failure and alert the operator in time to prevent an accident.
Scenarios of operator liability
Accidents where a self-driving car is at fault can be sorted into several categories, each with varying degrees of potential liability for the operator/driver:
- Accidents while the operator is in full manual control. Obviously, if the operator is driving and the car’s autonomous system disabled, the fact that the car has the system onboard won’t be relevant to the analysis.
- Accidents that occur after the autonomous system warns the operator to take control, but before the operator can do so. It seems inevitable that cases involving this situation will come up. Expecting operators to stay alert and aware of what’s happening around the car at all times seems unrealistic at best. Operators are likely to be looking at their phones, reading a book, or even dozing. Regardless, an operator who fails to react on time to a system warning may be committing negligence and may be liable in the same way as though he or she was distracted while driving a conventional car.
- Accidents that occur while the autonomous system is in full control. As happened in the fatal crash in Arizona, an autonomous system may not recognize its own failures in time to prevent an accident. Again, the operator is supposed to be watching what’s happening, but if the system is active, is the operator really “in control?” The answer isn’t clear, and likely will depend on the specific facts of the accident and a range of technical questions about the system itself. In these cases, the designer of the autonomous system may be at least partly responsible for the accident.
GGRM is an auto accident law firm in Las Vegas
For over 45 years the attorneys at Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez have represented clients who have been injured in auto accidents. We are closely monitoring the introduction of autonomous vehicles on Nevada’s roads. If you have questions about how a self-driving car may affect your liability, call us today for a free attorney consultation at 702-388-4476, or reach us through our contact page.