The state of California has recently agreed to allow driverless cars to be tested on the California roadways—with no human present in the vehicle. California’s new rules regarding driverless cars do require that the companies testing the driverless cars be able to operate the vehicle remotely, communicating with law enforcement if something goes awry.
One of the major benefits of a driverless car is that the vehicle will not be limited by “human” boundaries, rather it will be able to operate for 24 hours—or days—at a time with no decrease in alertness, yet many remain unconvinced about the safety of driverless cars.
Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group, is against California’s decision to allow driverless cars on the roadways, claiming the technology has not yet been proven safe enough to be deployed without a human “backup” driver in the car. In fact, John Simpson, the group’s technology project director claims “It will be just like playing a video game, except lives will be at stake.” While accidents and the ensuing fatalities and injuries are what many of us worry about in self-driving cars, there are many other issues to consider, one being how self-driving cars could impact DUI cases.
How Could Driverless Cars Affect DUIs?
Self-driving cars differ from driverless cars in that there is a real human being in a self-driving car—although that person could be in the back seat, sound asleep. Since self-driving cars could soon be the norm, it will be necessary to determine how other laws might be impacted once there is no longer a human behind the wheel. Other countries are weighing in on the issue—concerning driving while under the influence as it relates to self-driving cars, the National Transport Commission of Australia has said former DUI laws should no longer apply.
In the U.S. the Question is Whether a Driver Has Control of the Vehicle
In the U.S., however, in most states, if a driver is assumed to have control of the vehicle—whether or not he or she is actually driving—then DUI charges may be filed. As an example, a man in Georgia was convicted of a DUI in 2013 after he passed out in the bed of his truck with the motor running. If the keys to the vehicle are within the driver’s reach—or in the ignition—then the driver is considered to be in control of the vehicle.
The NTC has actually determined that our current DUI laws may not make much sense in the scenario of self-driving cars and that new laws will have to be clear about whether a passenger in a self-driving car, who started and/or programmed the car, could be charged with DUI. The NTC believes the provisions which currently apply to starting and setting in motion a vehicle when you are impaired should remain, applying also to a person who starts a self-driving car which also allows manual driving. The theory behind this is that an inebriated person who starts a car which could potentially be driven by that person clearly has the intent to drive, posing a safety risk to others on the roadways.
Under this theory, it would make no difference if an inebriated person allowed his or her self-driving car to take them home. Transfer that thinking to self-driving cars, and the question becomes whether a driver could be charged with DUI if he/she were in the back seat of a self-driving car as the car drove them home. Obviously, the human driver would have to program the route, so does that constitute control?
DUI Attorney Says “Sit in the Back Seat”
DUI attorney from Oregon, Michael Romano, thinks the difference should be in whether the impaired driver is sitting in the front seat—therefore has the capacity to actually drive—or sitting in the back seat, where it would not be as physically possible to drive. Yet think about this—most people who are pulled over on suspicion of impaired driving have made some sort of traffic error. They have strayed from their lane, are driving too fast or too slow, or have committed some other traffic violation
Self-Driving Cars are Unlikely to Be Pulled Over
A self-driving car has no reason to stray from the designated lane or drive recklessly and will always drive the speed limit, so it is highly unlikely a self-driving car would ever be pulled over on suspicion of DUI. A self-driving car could, however, be stopped at a DUI checkpoint, or the police could see a person stagger to his or her self-driving car with the intent of engaging the auto drive feature.
Will Self-Driving Cars Result in More Alcohol Consumption?
Some believe self-driving cars will result in drivers getting even more inebriated since they know they will not be driving. A Morgan Stanley analysis found that the advent of self-driving cars is highly likely to result in an increase in alcohol consumption, as people will know they do not have to drive, thus will have no worries about how much they drink. In fact, Morgan Stanley estimates the self-driving technology could create an extra $56 billion for the alcohol industry. Since self-driving cars are in a continuously-evolving process, the effects on DUI cases, not to mention traffic accidents, remain to be seen.