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Automated vehicles and car accidents: How does liability work?

Self-driving cars are touted as a way to reduce the risk of car accidents on the nation’s roadways. Even if proponents of this technology are right, accidents will still happen. Although we are not at the point where fully automated vehicles are common on the roads, partial automation is in regular use. So what happens when a vehicle that is using automation, whether fully or in part, is involved in an accident?

Who is liable?

Unfortunately, this question will likely become more common in the near future. A recent report by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) finds that after a month of driving a vehicle with automation technology, drivers are more likely to take their hands off the steering wheel or their eyes off the road. This is important because current technology is not designed to replace the driver. It is not fully automated. Instead, it is meant to supplement safety while a driver is in control. This partial automation cannot yet safely respond to all the conditions a driver will face on the roadway. It depends on the driver to take over during these situations and ensure safety.

The findings of this study lead us back to our original question. Who is liable when these vehicles crash? Although the exact answer will depend on the details of the accident, there are some generalities that can help you get a better idea of how the discussion about liability for these accidents will unfold.

In most cases, liability after an accident is generally determined using one of the following methods:

  • Drivers negotiate liability. The first option involves the drivers at the scene of the crash discussing who caused the accident. This is not ideal. Instead of admitting fault, listen to the other driver, take note of what they say and get some pictures of the scene. Still be polite and provide contact information, but it is generally not wise to start a conversation about liability.
  • Police decide. In serious accidents, it is a good idea to call police to the scene of the crash. When police arrive, they will file a police report that may contain drawings of the scene and an assessment of liability. Get a copy of this record.
  • Insurance. Another option involves filing a claim with insurance and letting the companies figure it out. Although this requires minimal involvement, it is not always in your best interest. It is not uncommon for insurance companies to fail to provide you with the compensation you deserve.

Those who are injured in a car crash can act to better ensure they receive the compensation they deserve by filing a civil lawsuit. This lawsuit can serve to hold the responsible driver accountable for the accident.

Is there anything else drivers who are involved in a crash with an automotive vehicle should know?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and Department of Transportation (DOT) recognize that early guidance will increase the likelihood that these advances translate to increased safety improvements. These federal agencies also state that they plan to establish a framework but encourage state governments to take responsibility for establishing liability and insurance rules. As such, the rules that guide liability in these cases will likely evolve as automation becomes more common.