How will self-driving cars affect drunk driving?

Every year, there are approximately 10 thousand drunk driving fatalities. The effect of self-driving cars on drunk driving could be significant. While still not ideal, drunk drivers using driverless cars would pose less risk to themselves and others than when those impaired by alcohol are fully, independently controlling a vehicle. Auto industry experts predict there will be over 30 million autonomous vehicles driving themselves on public roads by 2040.

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Shaheen F. Manshoory is a trial attorney specializing in criminal defense law, specifically litigation of complex criminal matters in state, federal, and juvenile courts, including the defense of professionals, corporations, and high-profile matters. A graduate of SCALE, a two-year, fully accredited, Juris Doctor program at Southwestern School of Law, Mr. Manshoory focused on integrating substa...

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Written by Shaheen F. Manshoory
Criminal Defense Lawyer Shaheen F. Manshoory

UPDATED: Jun 29, 2022

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  • Fully autonomous vehicles are still being developed and tested by companies
  • Driverless vehicles could help significantly reduce drunk driving accidents
  • New laws will have to be passed clarifying drunk drivers’ responsibility

Many people are in awe about self-driving cars, but most vehicles that are anywhere near a driverless car are only at level 2 automation, out of a possible 5 levels of automation.

Self-driving cars have the potential to reduce traffic accidents, avoid societal problems like drunk driving, and operate more efficiently.

What are the effects of self-driving cars? Self-driving cars’ effect on drunk driving could be significant, helping people make smarter choices that won’t lead to a first DUI.  Plus, the emergence of driverless cars creates questions like, “How will I insure a driverless car?”, “What happens if I get in a wreck with a driverless car?”, or “What is self-driving cars effect on drunk driving?”

We will tackle the last question of what is self-driving cars’ effect on drunk driving and explore some of the legal implications of this issue.

If you have a partly autonomous vehicle or a DUI on your record, shop around for the best auto insurance rates in your area using our free comparison tool above.

Current Laws on Drunk Driving

Under federal law, a person is guilty of DUI if they have a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of .08 percent or higher. If they are a commercial truck driver, the limit is .04 percent. Drivers under age 21 may be convicted at any discernible level of alcohol.

At a .08 percent BAC level, a person is usually considered per se impaired, meaning that they are assumed to be impaired if they are at this level. And there are more strict states that allow for an arrest and conviction of DUI if the motorists have impaired driving abilities despite lower BAC levels.

While these states generally illegalize DUI at the same BAC levels, the potential penalties for this offense vary tremendously from state to state. Some states require mandatory jail time upon conviction of a DUI while others do not.

Some DUI offenses are considered misdemeanors while others are considered felonies. Some states require the installation of an ignition interlock device upon conviction while others do not.

Also, most states initiate a separate administrative process that is distinct from the criminal process to suspend a driver’s license for suspicion of drunk driving.

Most states also have implied consent laws that require drivers to agree to permit a DUI test if they are reasonably suspected of operating a motor vehicle while impaired by drugs or alcohol.

If they refuse to permit this test, they may be subject to penalties like suspension of their driver’s license.

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Self-Driving Cars and Drunk Driving Safety

Wondering who will benefit from self-driving cars? The answer is anyone who drives, as drunk driving is a safety hazard that causes approximately 10,000 traffic fatalities every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

A possible solution to this health hazard is to fill self-driving cars with drunk drivers instead of leaving them on the roads to jeopardize other motorists’ safety.

The big question experts in the industry have been working to answer is this: Will self-driving cars help to stop drunk driving?

The research shows that autonomous vehicles may be able to decrease the occurance of drunk driving, yes. Presumably, fully automated vehicles would be able to avoid the societal problem of drunk driving since computers would not be drunk.

There are still safety concerns, however, such as the ability to be easier hacked and controlled. It also poses the question: “can you use a self-driving car while drunk?” as there would need to be safety features in place to help a drunk driver safely use a self-driving car.

Self-Driving Cars Are the Inevitable Future

Self-driving car statistics show that while self-driving cars have been promised by automakers for several years now, they are not quite a reality, yet. Nonetheless, several big names including Tesla, BMW, Audi, Google, and Uber are exploring options for driverless vehicles.

Industry experts project that 33 million autonomous vehicles will be driving on roads by 2040. This projection predicts that self-driving cars are the new wave of the future. The only question is when cars like the Google (Waymo) self-driving car and robotaxis will hit the market.

Are self-driving cars really safer than human drivers?

One of the risks of self-driving cars is not knowing whether they are actually safer than human drivers. Self-driving cars are a relatively new phenomenon, and innovation is still underway to advance these vehicles to higher levels of automation.

The University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute conducted the first self-driving car crash study.

While the sample size was small, researchers determined that autonomous vehicles got into more crashes than conventional vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles were involved in crashes at a rate of 9.1 crashes per million miles driven. In comparison, conventional vehicles were involved in crashes at a rate of 4.1 crashes per million miles driven.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration supports continued advancement in vehicle automation, citing the fact that 94% of serious crashes are due to human error and opining that many of these can be avoided when the human factor is eliminated.

Even though researchers found autonomous vehicles were more likely to crash, they found that the collisions involving conventional vehicles tended to involve more serious injuries compared to the more often occurring low-speed, rear-end crashes caused by autonomous vehicles.

Insurance and Self-Driving Cars

Will insurance get cheaper with self-driving cars? This will depend on how safe self-driving cars actually become. At this time, the technology that drives these vehicles is not that advanced and may not prevent more accidents.

If autonomous vehicles become fundamentally safer and the technology is improved, owners could find themselves paying significantly less for their insurance premiums with the best self-driving cars.

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Frequently Asked Questions: The Legal Side of Self-Driving Cars and Drunk Driving

Unsurprisingly, many people have questions about self-driving cars’ effect on drunk driving, such as if drivers will be legally held responsible if pulled over drunk in a self-driving car. Read on to see answers to commonly asked questions about self-driving cars and drunk driving.

#1 – Can I get a DUI in a self-driving car?

Can you get a DUI if a Tesla is driving itself? This will depend on how the DUI statute is written. In some jurisdictions, you can get a DUI even if you do not have the keys, the keys are not in the ignition, the vehicle is not in gear, or you are in the backseat of the car. In these jurisdictions, you might still get a DUI even if the car was self-driving if you are able to take back control from the vehicle.

In other jurisdictions, being in a vehicle where you do not have control over the vehicle may not be considered a DUI offense. Still yet, some jurisdictions allow a person to avoid a conviction for DUI if the accused has moved the vehicle safely off the roadway.

#2 – Will my driving record be affected if caught drunk in a self-driving car?

This will depend on whether you are convicted of DUI as part of a criminal or administrative charge. If you are convicted of a DUI offense, it is likely that your driving records would reflect this, whether the offense occurred in an autonomous or conventional vehicle. Self-driving cars and DUI laws are still evolving, so the legal ramifications are largely unknown.

#3 – What changes in drunk driving laws need to be made when self-driving cars become commonplace?

Self-driving cars’ effect on drunk driving may require lawmakers to establish new legislation to account for the technological changes. For example, DUI laws with self-driving cars might need to differentiate between when a driver actually has control over a vehicle versus when the vehicle was in full automation mode.

So when asking what is one disadvantage of a self-driving car that allows a person to take control, the answer is that it makes culpability harder to determine.

Another consideration may be where the driver is located in the vehicle. If they are behind the wheel, it may be presumed that they could be “operating” the vehicle or at least be able to regain control, but this presumption may not apply if the “driver” is in the passenger seat or back seat of the vehicle.

#4 – Who is responsible when a self-driving car has an accident?

This is a tricky legal question, but the basic answer is that if the driver could have prevented the crash by taking manual control of the vehicle, they will be held responsible.

Autonomous vehicles are a great sign of innovation. However, this changing technology will also require a complete overhaul of laws, including considering self-driving cars’ effect on drunk driving. Fortunately, it looks like lawmakers might have a few years left to make the changes before a completely human-less vehicle becomes the norm.

Since self-driving cars and accident-free roads aren’t yet a reality, you will need to make sure you have good auto insurance in case of a collision. Enter your ZIP code into our free tool below to find the best rates in your area.

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