How driverless vehicles can overhaul the discussion on liability in accidents

Posted: 25 May 2018 | | No comments yet

Successful safety improvements may not mean we’re completely safe, says Transportation Lawyer Michael Barasch, but driverless technology can ensure that liability is properly assigned in the event of an accident…

How driverless vehicles can overhaul the discussion of liability in accidents

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, per mile driven in the U.S., fatalities declined by more than 95 per cent between 1921 and 2015. However, approximately 33,000 people are killed every year in car crashes – about the same number of deaths caused by guns or opioid overdoses. Despite hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on safety campaigns to keep the public aware of the dangers of drunk and distracted driving and the failure to buckle up, fatalities increased 14 per cent over the past two years. In addition, more than 2.2 million people were injured in car crashes in 2017, many of whom were permanently disabled as a result.

These statistics represent a continuing health crisis that, relative to its impact, receives comparatively little attention.

The risk associated with cars demands a solution. In my years as an attorney, I have represented thousands of people who have been seriously harmed in car crashes and other transportation-related incidents, where human error was the major factor in a death or permanent injury. In fact, rarely has mechanical failure been the reason for a car crash.

What manner of human error has contributed to crashes?

Most accidents are caused by two factors: driver distraction such as texting or talking on a smartphone and reckless behaviour like speeding. Despite technology that has given us ‘smarter’ cars, it’s evident that drivers aren’t getting smarter. Furthermore, measures such as law enforcement checkpoints to reprimand drunk driving and the widespread ability to call an Uber, have failed to address the problem as people continue to drink and drive. In fact, the number of serious accidents is rising, mostly due to human error. These accidents will no doubt continue for as long as humans are in control of cars. As with all humans, some drivers will always make mistakes or refuse to obey the rules.

Driverless cars, which use sensors to determine road conditions and respond accordingly, offer a compelling alternative to the current situation. A computer that controls a car will never daydream, get drowsy, try to read or type a text message or tailgate other cars.

Autonomous vehicles are not perfect, of course. Every form of technology, from the simplest to the most complicated, has the potential to fail and computers, which malevolent hackers could potentially disrupt from afar, require special caution.

Ultimately, however, the elimination of human control – and therefore human error – in driving will make our roads safer, saving millions of individuals from untimely death and serious injury.

Change is coming

The transition to driverless cars will not only improve safety but will ironically transform the practice of personal injury law. I welcome this change.

The legal issues involved in car crashes have remained relatively stable for many years, from the Model T to the Toyota Prius. After a crash has occurred, we seek to determine whether and to what extent the driver and any other individuals involved were at fault, as well as the share of each contributor’s fault.

Think of a relatively simple instance, where a car collides with a pedestrian crossing the street. Was the driver intoxicated or distracted? Was the driver speeding or driving recklessly? Was the pedestrian crossing against a ‘Don’t Walk’ sign?

The development of driverless cars will change our methods of gathering evidence after a car crash. Rather than trying to determine the status of the driver from the statements of witnesses, we will have computer records and possibly video, that will allow us to determine the answers to these questions.

Driverless cars will also feature controls that prevent dangerous acts, such as speeding or passing incorrectly, and will follow posted signage and traffic signals. In addition, they will not have to depend on the delayed reflexes of a human to brake quickly when a pedestrian or other car suddenly appears ‘out of nowhere’– as human drivers often say after a crash.

It seems likely that, with much safer driverless cars on the road, the number of personal injury lawsuits will decrease. I’ve spent the past 35 years representing victims of car accidents, often with heart-breaking consequences. Doctors can do only so much to repair the injuries and attorneys are often unable to obtain monetary awards to compensate victims when the offending vehicle has little or no insurance. Many potential lawsuits are either not filed or the victim never fully recovers compensation because the driver lacks substantial assets and has limited liability coverage (or worse, does not have any form of car insurance – as is the case with 20 per cent of drivers).

Now consider some of the companies that are developing autonomous vehicles: Google, Tesla, Uber, BMW and Toyota. When a crash occurs, if and when the driverless car technology is found at fault, victims will be able to recover the full amount of their damages. These companies will have a powerful financial incentive to create technology that meets the highest standards of safety, to avoid both compensatory and punitive damages.

Furthermore, as driverless cars become more common on the roads, lawmakers could impose regulations that further promote safety. These might include features that restrict car speeds to 65mph or one that prevents driving until all passengers have buckled their seatbelts.

Certainly, the recent crash in Arizona, where a driverless Uber car killed a pedestrian, has raised legitimate concerns that need to be addressed.

Driverless car makers must do so by rigorously testing the systems that operate their vehicles. However, driverless car technology offers a genuine opportunity to avoid the problem of human error that leads to so many needless deaths and injuries, creating roads that are much safer.

It offers an alternative that promises a dramatic reduction in harm, to the benefit of millions of road users. Regulators have a responsibility to work closely with driverless car manufacturers to get these vehicles on the road – safely – as soon as possible.