Proposed UK self-driving car laws would exempt drivers from accident blame
26 January 2022
Author: Sean Keywood
Legal recommendations designed to allow the safe introduction of self-driving cars to UK roads have been published - with drivers set for immunity from prosecution for accidents.
A joint report by the Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission calls for a new Automated Vehicles Act to be introduced.
The report says the law should draw a clear distinction between features which just assist drivers, such as adaptive cruise control, and those that are self-driving, ready for when the technology to allow the latter has been established.
It says that when a car is authorised by a regulator as having self-driving features, and these features are in use, the person in the driving seat would no longer be responsible for how the car drives. Instead, the company or body that obtained the authorisation would face regulatory sanctions if anything went wrong.
In legal terms, under the proposals, the person in the driving seat of an actively self-driving car would be classed not as a driver, but as a 'user-in-charge', and would therefore be immune from prosecution for a wide range of driving offences, including dangerous driving and speeding, while the vehicle was operating in that state. However, they would retain responsibility for other factors not directly related to driving, such as carrying insurance, checking loads, and ensuring passengers wear seat belts.
In the event that vehicles, such as taxis, were authorised to drive themselves without anybody in the driver's seat, any occupants would simply be passengers, with a licensed operator responsible for overseeing the journey.
Among the report's other recommendations are new safeguards against misleading marketing of driver assistance systems that might confuse drivers into not needing to pay attention to the road when in fact they do.
It also said that, while it was accepted that autonomous vehicles should be safer than human drivers before they were introduced, the question of how much safer was a question for politicians to rule on, with some experts consulted for the report saying they would need to be a great deal safer to gain public acceptance. The report also said safety for occupants of self-driving cars should not come at the expense of other groups, such as pedestrians or cyclists.
The report's recommendations will now be considered by the UK, Scottish, and Welsh Governments for possible legislation.
Commenting with the publication of the report, public law commissioner Nicholas Paines QC said: "We have an unprecedented opportunity to promote public acceptance of automated vehicles with our recommendations on safety assurance and clarify legal liability.
"We can also make sure accessibility, especially for older and disabled people, is prioritised from the outset."
UK Government Transport Minister Trudy Harrison said: "The development of self-driving vehicles in the UK has the potential to revolutionise travel, making every day journeys safer, easier and greener.
"This government has been encouraging development and deployment of these technologies to understand their benefits. However, we must ensure we have the right regulations in place, based upon safety and accountability, in order to build public confidence.
"That's why the Department for Transport funded this independent report and I look forward to fully considering the recommendations and responding in due course."
Matthew Avery, chief research strategy officer at safety organisation Thatcham Research, which was consulted for the report, said: "The transition to safe introduction of automation with self-driving capabilities is fraught with risk as we enter the early stages of adoption.
"Today's report is a significant step, as it provides important legal recommendations and clarity for the safe deployment of vehicles with self-driving features onto the UK's roads."