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Driverless Cars and DUI


Driverless cars could one day alter our lives in California. They could re-shape the way we work and travel. However, for the time being, the technology is not ready for mass consumption. A state law passed in 2012 legalized “autonomous vehicles” and allowed them to be tested on state roads.

The law also mandated the DMV to develop regulations and protocols to certify the safety of the vehicles before they could be sold to the public. It appears that the DMV will miss the deadline for these regulations, which was to be January 1 st 2015.

The DMV will need to tackle a number if issues. What would happen if the car malfunctions or is “hacked”? Who is responsible if the car is involved in a collision? Would roads need to be altered? Would we need a special lane for driverless cars?

One big question that the DMV will need to address is whether it would be OK for “passengers” to use a driverless car while impaired through alcohol or drugs? Is it possible to be guilty of DUI in a driverless vehicle? Would it be OK to drink alcohol in a driverless vehicle?

At present, the law is very broad on what constitutes “driving” for the purposes of criminal responsibility. Even a front seat passenger can be guilty of DUI if they grab the steering wheel to help the driver avoid a collision. This constitutes operation of the vehicle and “driving” for DUI purposes.

One would imagine that some element of operating a driverless vehicle, even switching it on and becoming a passenger should constitute operation of a vehicle and therefore “driving”. However, all of this remains to be determined. I would think that MADD should have something to say about it as soon as a driverless vehicle occupied by someone who is drunk hits an innocent bystander, killing him or her.

However, the possibilities for reducing accidents and the number of DUI cases are obvious. For this and other reasons, I believe that driverless cars will be common one day, whether DUI lawyers like it or not!