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Driverless Cars: The future of road traffic accidents

Posted on August 7th 2018

In March the first fatal crash involving a driverless car and a pedestrian happened in Arizona, USA. It marks the beginning of a fast approaching era – the era of driverless vehicles.

An autonomous, or driverless, car is a car which is capable of navigating without human input. Generally, these vehicles are viewed as having great potential to improve transportation in the future. For example, they could reduce costs, increase safety and reduce car crashes. However, recent events have shown that currently the technology is not up to scratch in terms of safety. In this article we ask, when things go wrong, who is to blame?

Controversy around the safety of self-driving cars:

On March 18th 2018, 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg was walking outside of a pedestrian crossing with a bicycle when she was hit by a self-driving car travelling at 40mph. The accident was the first fatal accident involving a self-driving car and a pedestrian. An investigation in to the crash found that the car spotted the pedestrian but chose not to react, and that the safety driver in the car was watching a TV programme on her phone at the time of the crash.

In response to the crash, Uber was banned from operating self-driving cars in Arizona, forcing them to shutdown their testing programme in the area. In July it was revealed that Uber will even scale back its testing in Pittsburgh.

Previous accidents:

This is not the first time autonomous vehicles have come under fire. Controversy has surrounded self-driving vehicles for many years now, as people question their safety following a string of accidents.

Last year in Arizona, a non-fatal accident happened involving one of Uber’s self-driving vehicles and, in 2016, self-driving cars in California were found to be running red lights.

Tesla Motors were the first to disclose a death involving a self-driving car in 2016, when the sensors of one of their cars failed to detect a very large 18-wheel truck and its trailer crossing a highway. The resulting collision killed the operator sat inside the car.

Self-driving technology is supposed to detect pedestrians, cyclists and others to prevent crashes. Clearly, this does not always work in practice. Often, driverless cars have ‘operators’ behind the wheel to step-in if necessary. In other instances the cars have no one inside. Even if the cars have operators, research has shown that these operators may become ‘complacent’ – drivers in driverless vehicles react slower when they have to intervene in a critical situation compared to if they were driving manually.

Who is to blame when a driverless car injures someone?

This could depend on whether the car had an ‘operator’ (someone able to take over driving the car if necessary) in it at the time of the accident. If an operator was present, then assigning blame would depend on whether the collision happened because of decisions made by the operator, or because of decisions made autonomously by the vehicle.

If the vehicle was fully autonomous (had no one inside), then blame could be placed on a number of parties. This could include the manufacturer, the service center, or even the owner of the vehicle.


The manufacturer could be liable if the crash happened because of a design fault. For example, if the software controlling the car was flawed in some way, or if the accident could reasonably have been prevented by a human driver – suggesting that the software was not extensive enough to cover all of the possible scenarios that could occur.

The service centre:

The company servicing the vehicle could be to blame if they did not service the vehicle correctly, and this subsequently caused the vehicle to crash.


The owner of the vehicle could be blamed for the accident if they failed to implement a software update sent to them by the manufacturer, or ignored advice from the service centre that their vehicle was not currently road-worthy.

Will driverless cars make it easier to see what happened in an accident?

Driverless cars are fitted with numerous sensors which track everything. As a result, they may make it easier for authorities and solicitors managing accident claims to see what happened during an accident.

Is it likely that a self-driving car will crash?

Unfortunately, self-driving cars are a very new innovation. Whilst they are still be tested/improved it is likely that we will see more accidents. Mark Rosekind, a former administrator of the National Traffic Safety Administration in the US, had this to say:

“Unfortunately, there will be crashes. People are going to get hurt and there will be some lives lost. All of that I think is going to be, I hope, focused on the service of trying to save lives.”

However, he added that a large amount of fatal accidents today are due to human error. If self-driving cars are perfected, we may face a future where there will be no car accidents at all.

August is National Road Victim Month:

August is National Road Victim Month – a time to remember those killed in a road traffic accident in the UK.

This month our thoughts are with the friends and families of people killed or seriously injured in road traffic accidents. Sadly, too many people are still killed on the roads each year. In the year ending September 2017, there were 1,720 road deaths. Learn more by clicking here.

How can we help?

If you’ve been in a car crash involving a car driven by a human or a computer, we’re here to help. We help clients every day claim compensation after they have been injured in accidents. Read about our services here or call us today on 01244 312306.

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