Several years ago when self-driving cars were still in the experimentation phase, I wrote a blog speculating on the effect self-driving cars may have on DUI laws. Now that self-driving cars are becoming more commonplace, especially in Southern California, we are about to find out.
I have an acquaintance who claims he catches up on his sleep during his commute from Orange County to Santa Monica every morning while his car drives him to work. The latest iteration of his self-driving Tesla is pretty good at driving; it will even parallel park itself. But drinking and leaving the driving to your designated driver, i.e., your car, won’t get you off the hook if you happen to get stopped on the road. These cars require a conscious human presence as a “just in case” back-up and blaming your DUI accident on your car or ignoring the DUI laws because your car is driving just won’t fly (and neither do the cars, so far).
Recently, a local Southern California woman learned this the hard way. She had too much to drink and instructed her Tesla to take her home. While the car was driving on autopilot, she passed out. As the car was transitioning from the Ventura Freeway to the I5, the car hit a wall. The car kept driving, so apparently the impact with the wall was minor. But, shortly thereafter, a CHP officer pulled in front of the Tesla and the car stopped. When contacted by the officer, the woman was still asleep in the driver’s seat. The officer woke her and administered a DUI test. She was arrested for suspected DUI.
Now I will be the first to admit that a Tesla on autopilot is probably a safer driver than an inebriated human. But no, you can’t go out for a night of drinking and have your car drive you home without risking a DUI. The autopilot needs an alert person behind the wheel just like a jet needs an alert pilot, even though the plane is flying itself.
We may call it “autopilot” but that doesn’t mean the car drives itself. The autopilot feature is what Tesla describes as an “advanced driver-assistance system.” There are numerous reports of Tesla collisions – enough that the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that the autopilot feature should be limited to roads where it can be safely used. But many believe that the car’s autopilot is as safe as a human driver— or safer as Elon Musk argues—since human drivers cause collisions too.
Nevertheless, for now and probably well the future, the DUI laws apply even though you are in a car that is driving itself. I can think of a few unique arguments for the DUI court. What if your car is driving you home and you are not even in the driver’s seat? You are unlikely to convince the DUI court that you weren’t driving even though technically you weren’t. You caused the car to drive and, in any event, you are legally required to be sitting behind the wheel with your full faculties intact. Driving may be changing but the DUI laws are unlikely to follow.
Orange County DUI attorney William Weinberg has defended hundreds of DUI clients for over 25 years. He is available for a free consultation to discuss your DUI case. You can contact him at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.