Current laws would hold drivers responsible for autonomous vehicles collisions

Published: February 8, 2018

Updated: July 24, 2018

Author: Luke Jones

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An expert in insurance defence and product liability told claims specialist Tuesday that traffic laws will need to change when driverless cars are on the road alongside normal motorists.

While some current vehicles have very limited self-driving capabilities, autonomy will increase of coming years. Semi-autonomous vehicles will allow drivers to perform other tasks as the vehicle operates most tasks itself. Full autonomy will see the car complete all operations and there will be no need for a steering wheel or pedals.

Under the current climate and into semi-autonomy, the driver must be prepared to take over operations if necessary, explained Sandra Corbett, and Edmonton-based partner who works with Field Law.

However, Corbett proposed a situation where the driver of a semi-autonomous car is texting or is distracted. “Those are some of the issues that you are going to have to pay attention to,” Corbett told claims professionals Tuesday during the 51st annual joint conference of the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Insurance Claims Managers Association and the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Independent Adjusters’ Association.

Under current law in Canada, the driver would be liable for distracted or negligent driving, and would be held liable in court. However, the idea of self-driving technology is that it would allow vehicle occupants to be distracted. Even in this case, Canadian law would hold the vehicle owner vicariously liable.

This means even if the owner did not because the collision, the court would still hold them responsible. Corbett says current vicarious liable laws will be suitable for basic autonomy, but as soon as cars start performing more tasks, the law may not be sufficient:

But the current law “may be inapplicable where autonomous vehicles are driverless, and there may be legislative amendments required,” said Corbett. This is because the driver would have no control over the vehicle.

“It’s possible that our legislatures are going to make policy decisions and impose liability on the owners in a fully automated vehicle situation,” Corbett said. But it is not clear whether owners will still have liability in the event that fully self-driving vehicles get introduced on public roads. That is a policy question “that legislatures are going to have to address,” Corbett said.