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Driverless Cars:The End Of The Road For Traffic Offences?

Do you enjoy driving?  Should it matter if we lost our skills at the wheel?  One day soon, instead of mastering the art of driving through learning, practice and experience, we will whistle up a self-driving autonomous car instead which will whisk us to our destination by itself.  It won’t be long before everyone can look forward to car journeys as the perfect opportunity to relax, read, catch up on social media or snooze.  

It is thought by experts that the first truly autonomous cars will be available to buy in about 2025.  Every car manufacturer is working on developing autonomous vehicles.  A car on the road without a steering wheel is only a matter of time.  However, there will be a progression from “feet off” through “hands off”, to “eyes off” until eventually “brain off”.  There will be no necessity for driving tests or licences.  We already have cameras and radars on today’s cars with AEB braking systems, park assist, and even adaptive cruise control and lane monitoring systems where the car takes control of steering and speed in heavy traffic up to 40mph.  “Traffic Jam Assist” will be introduced by several manufacturers later this year.  However, the driver is still very much required at all times to monitor and to take over when necessary.

In the short term, the next real landmark will be “hands-off driving” which is likely to happen around 2018 on motorways.  However, drivers will remain responsible and the system will warn them to place their hands on the wheel after around three minutes.  Drivers would be responsible for their vehicle and would need to take back control should anything go wrong.

The head of Volvo, Hakan Samuelsson, said self-driving cars “will save lives and reduce congestion”.  He also predicted that people could use their time more productively by watching a movie or reading emails.  However, it is not being suggested that a driver could get into a car drunk, and be busy texting on the way home.  The head of the Association of British Insurers, James Dalton, compares the situation with an aircraft being flown on autopilot with a human sitting in the cockpit ready to take over when necessary.

With automated driving being predicted for 2021 and fully autonomous cars by 2025, we need to start to consider the impact of these changes on our lives.  Experts think that only ten years from now, a car will be able to drive itself from door to door without a driver needing to touch the wheel whether that journey includes motorways or city environments.  

There is a Code of Practice to cover the testing of these cars on UK roads.  The code is non-statutory but has been developed to promote responsible testing.  So can a car be prosecuted for speeding?  Much like the Highway Code, failure to comply with the Code of Practice might be relevant in proving liability in any legal proceedings.  The code requires that all driving laws and limits must be obeyed, as well as other points such as previous closed-road/in-house testing to have been undertaken, a driver being always present or an operator outside the vehicle who can retake control, the vehicle should carry a black box, etc.

So what is the legal view on driverless cars?  There are obviously huge questions about who would be at fault if there should be a road traffic accident, and would motorists even require a licence?  Where would liability lie in terms of insurance?

US government research suggests that self-driving cars will lead to an 80% fall in the number of car crashes by 2035, and car insurance premiums are expected to fall.  This would have a negative impact on insurance companies.  A spokesman from Ageas insurance said: “Autonomy flattens risk.”  He also pointed out that insurers would need to move from a fault-based system towards product liability, which would be needed to protect motorists from hacking or if software systems went wrong causing an accident.  There will be many adjustments to a driverless situation.  Would a car pass an MOT, for example, if the automated system was broken but the car could still be driven manually?  Would it still be against the Highway Code to drive too close to the vehicle in front?  What about cyclists and pedestrians?  If they know a car will stop automatically when they step or cycle out in front of it, are they likely to take advantage of this and what will this mean to traffic flow in urban areas?  Without driving lessons, test or licence to pay for and cheap insurance, will the numbers of vehicles on our roads increase exponentially?

We would argue that the most dangerous period will be when driver assistance systems are in use but have not yet evolved into fully autonomous cars.  Assistance systems need to be supervised by the driver, but we would point out that it is simply not human nature to maintain a state of high alertness for hours and hours when merely spectating.  We believe that there will be an increase in cases of careless driving and dangerous driving during this time.  We suggest that it is unrealistic to think that motorists would have the ability to suddenly snap to attention when they were required to take over.  It is extremely unlikely that an engrossed or snoozing motorist could, in a split second and due to some obviously serious and unexpected problem, take immediate action to prevent an accident.  It is doubtful that such a driver would still have the skills to take over a car and execute a tricky manoeuvre at such a dramatic moment after goodness knows how long since they had done any traditional driving, their skills atrophied from lack of use.  Gradual evolution is not a safe option. The time period between the introduction of driver assistance systems and the introduction of fully autonomous self-driving cars should be as short as possible, for the sake of everyone’s safety on the roads.