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Accidents with driverless cars: what are the legal implications?

Driverless car
27th July 2016

On the 7th May 2016 in the USA, Joshua Brown sadly died when his driverless car crashed whilst on ‘autopilot’ mode.

This will go down in history as the first reported death from one of the most significant technological advancements we’ve ever seen in transportation and raises a number of legal questions.

So what impact driverless cars could have on UK law and how they could affect Road Traffic Accident (RTA) claims?

Who is to blame?

ONS figures show that in 2014 there were a total of 194,477 casualties in reported road traffic accidents. There were 22,807 serious injuries and tragically 1,775 deaths.

In many of these accidents, individuals will have been compensated for any suffering via a well-established legal and insurance process.

Whilst driver error is responsible for most road traffic accidents, driverless vehicles shift the accident risk from the individual to the vehicle and the manufacturers’ systems.  This raises the key issue of who is ultimately liable when there is an accident?

We could see a situation where it is no longer drivers and their insurers who are the main parties in any legal dispute over who is at fault but the manufacturers themselves.

The European Parliament's Committee on Legal Affairs report ‘Cross-border traffic accidents in the EU – the potential impact of driverless cars’ was commissioned, supervised and published by the Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs.

It recommended: ‘the introduction of a duty for car manufacturers to contract liability insurance covering traffic accidents victims; the possibility of a direct action against a manufacturer’s liability insurer’.

This suggests that governments may well take the view that manufacturers of driverless cars are ultimately responsible and may need to prove liability against each other.

This would turn the established order on its head and create a huge new challenge to develop a legal and insurance structure that was fair and in the interests of victims, their access to justice and their right to compensation.

Clearly an added complication will be the fact that, for the foreseeable future, both driverless and traditional cars will be sharing the road with each other.

This complexity is part of the reason why Google recently announced that its self-driving car project was appointing its own General Counsel to oversee the myriad legal issues related to this new technology.

Is this a flash in the pan?

It’s clear that there is significant support for developing and adopting this technology in the UK.

The 2016 Queen’s speech announced that measures in the Modern Transport Bill would: “ensure the UK is at the forefront of technology for new forms of transport, including autonomous and electric vehicles”.

This desire to lead is understandable when the global automotive industry is estimated to be worth £900bn by 2025 and existing UK legislation puts us in poll position to take advantage of this new technology.

The Daily Telegraph states that: ‘legally, Britain already has a head start over many other nations in autonomous vehicles because the UK never ratified the Vienna Convention, which requires that: “every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle”.

How soon will driverless cars be on the road?

The Government has pledged to amend road laws by 2018 to account for the rise in driverless or semi-autonomous cars.

As this means that car manufacturers could be liable for damage and injury and require insurance cover sooner rather than later, the insurance industry has already formed an alliance to analyse the impact that this could have.

Although the laws may alter over the coming years, it is highly unlikely that the roads will immediately fill with driverless cars, as the initial cost (estimated to be around £100,000) is likely to be prohibitive for most road users.

What about now?

Whilst the rise of driverless cars may appear inevitable, the impact of the UK’s decision to leave the EU could ultimately slow down the pace of change.

Current laws therefore still apply, which means that for any car currently on the road that uses automation, responsibility still lies with the driver.

Your Legal Friend are experts in pursuing claims for those who have suffered injuries as a result of negligent driving and can provide support for victims seeking compensation.

If you have been injured in an accident that was not your fault and your injuries hinder your day-to-day life or ability to work, then please call us free on: 0808 159 6456.