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Will Self-Driving Cars be the End to DUIs in Washington State?

Posted by Aaron J. Wolff | Jan 25, 2018 | 0 Comments

There's lots of talk these days of self-driving vehicles. They are being tested in cities throughout the country, but California has been leading the way in this effort. Along with these smart vehicles is talk of smart infrastructure that will communicate with these vehicles. Washington, however, has fallen behind many other progressive states, but it's making an effort to catch up. In fact, if you drive on I-5, you may be witness to it. ACES Northwest Network, which stands for Automated, Connected, Electric, Shared, is set on turning I-5 in Washington State into an autonomous vehicle corridor, and then eventually extending that to all roads in Washington state. According to My Northwest, ACES proposes "a change on the roads every few years until drivers are eliminated."

As you may know, I-5 is also home to many accidents, many of which are caused by persons driving under the influence of alcohol, drugs, and now -- electronics. What would self-driving vehicles mean ; could it signal the end to DUIs in the state of Washington? Maybe. But not anytime soon. There are specific issues that this matter raises.

Hands on the Wheel: Still Necessary

Self-driving cars by its definition drive on their own accord. Though the technology is well-advanced today, it is not yet fool-proof. Drivers must still maintain control of the vehicle and keep their hands on the wheel at all times. Accidents have happened in smart vehicles when drivers take their hands off the wheel, or even fall asleep. Though these accidents happen, like in California when there were 6 accidents involving self-driving vehicles or most recently in Las Vegas where there was an accident on the first day of its newly released driverless shuttle, the accidents are not generally caused by the self-driving vehicles, but because there are other drivers on the road not in self-driving vehicles, you need to be aware at all times of your surroundings. Without the "smart" infrastructure and roads completely driven on by driverless vehicles, accidents will still occur. Thus, for persons under the influence, you still need to be in control, and being under the influence impairs your ability to control.

Actual, Physical Control

But the matter of control comes into question with self-driving vehicles: is the driver/owner in control, or the vehicle and its software? If you "drive" a self-driving vehicle, the question with regard to a DUI, should you be under the influence, is really who or what was in actual, physical control of the vehicle. As the law is now, you can't be convicted of a DUI if you are not actually and physically in control of the vehicle. Some might think this is a good argument on the side of the DUI suspect, but safe operation is ultimately the person behind the wheel's responsibility. Absent serious software malfunction, the "driver" will likely still be deemed actually and physically in control. That said, the question has not yet been an issue in court.

Smart Vehicles Out-Smarted

As we await the day for our smart vehicles and smart infrastructure to lead us into a new era of accident-free roads, and maybe DUI-free safe transportation, we will -- for now -- be responsible when behind the wheel of a self-driving vehicle. But then again, is that day ever going to come when we can truly give up control of our smart vehicle? As with all smart technology, there is one problem: software, software that can be out-smarted by hackers. For a sick kind of fun or for terror, hackers who successfully hack into vehicles can successfully create havoc, chaos, and accidents on the road.

DUI Laws Ill-Equipped to Address Self-Driving Vehicles

Laws today that address driving under the influence and related laws, such as Open Container laws, would need to be modified to address these and other new issues. This, however, raises another problem, which relates to the self-driving accidents that have already occurred: into the foreseeable future, there will be self-driving vehicles driving alongside human-driven vehicles where the motorist is still completely, actually and physically in control of the vehicle. This matter was recently addressed at the 50th annual meeting of the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA). Reported by, members discussed DUI laws and whether modifying or qualifying based on automation would be more effective. It always came back to the same question, though: what happens if a driver under the influence decides to take control of the vehicle even though its being driven by software? Questions of evidence, qualifications, etc. were more available than the answers.

In Washington, for now and into the foreseeable future, driverless vehicles is not going to be the answer to DUI charges, but an experienced attorney will be. Never let a DUI charge go unchallenged; always seek legal representation by someone who knows what they are doing, even if the DUI happened in a driverless car along Interstate 5.

About the Author

Aaron J. Wolff

A former DUI prosecutor, Aaron Wolff has over 18 years of experience in representing people accused of DUI and is recognized as one of the leading defense lawyers in Washington State. His relentless and passionate advocacy has lead to superb ratings and outstanding reviews from former clients.


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