Immunity From Traffic Tickets for Driverless Cars in California?

Traffic accidents lead to tens of thousands of fatalities and countless more injuries each year. With human error being one of the main reasons behind these accidents, people have been paying greater attention to the concept of self-driving cars.

Many auto industry and safety experts believe that the use of driverless vehicles can significantly reduce traffic accidents. However, this is not yet the case. To further complicate matters, driverless vehicles are currently immune from receiving traffic tickets and criminal charges in California — countermeasures that are among the principal means of ensuring traffic safety.

Driverless Vehicles Hit the Road in California

The Golden State usually leads the country in technological innovations. As such, it is the ideal location to put driverless cars to the test. 

Currently, hundreds of autonomous vehicles are roaming California streets to show off their state-of-the-art capabilities as well as demonstrate where their weaknesses lie. As of the beginning of 2024, the concerns over these weaknesses seem to be rising faster than any praise these vehicles are receiving.

Traffic Enforcement Problems

One of the main issues arising out of the testing of self-driving vehicles is one of enforcement. After being out on streets throughout the state, it has become clear that driverless vehicles are among the worst traffic offenders. These vehicles have been witnessed breaking all manner of traffic laws on numerous occasions, including:

  • Running red lights and stop signs
  • Cutting off and blocking first responders
  • Driving dangerously around construction zones

These actions are dangerous and can lead to more accidents. However, the problem is not so much the dangerous driving as it is the enforcement of and punishment for said driving. 

No Tickets for Driverless Vehicles

Under California law, cars do not get tickets; people do. Law enforcement authorities are powerless to issue citations when driverless vehicles break traffic laws because there is no driver behind the wheel. 

Typically, the ticketing system acts as a way to deter drivers from breaking traffic regulations. Since this threat is no longer present with driverless cars, the deterrence factor disappears.

In other words, the current traffic laws on the books are incapable of addressing driverless vehicles. Thus, many people across industries, including the auto, technology, and legal sectors, are calling for an expansion of or update to traffic laws to encompass driverless vehicles. 

Corporate Bad Behavior 

Unfortunately, allegations of corporate bad behavior have surfaced with regard to the testing of autonomous vehicles. In one well-known case, autonomous vehicle producer Cruise was alleged to have misrepresented facts to the California Department of Motor Vehicles regarding a traffic accident involving one of its vehicles in San Francisco. 

Cruise, owned by General Motors, launched a fleet of robotaxis that operated in the city until relatively recently. On October 2, 2023, a hit-and-run driver struck a pedestrian, causing the woman to fly directly into the path of a Cruise robotaxi. The autonomous taxi subsequently ran over the woman and came to a stop. 

What the vehicle did next is what has raised deep safety concerns. After coming to a full stop, the car restarted and attempted to pull over to the side of the road. Sadly, the pedestrian remained trapped underneath the vehicle and was dragged 20 feet. 

Fortunately, the pedestrian did not die, but she did spend months in the hospital. For much of that time, she was listed as being in serious condition. Now, however, she has been upgraded to “good condition.” As a result of the accident, the city of San Francisco has taken the robotaxis off the streets.

Allegations of a Coverup 

The October car crash brought the investigative eye of the DMV. After initial investigations, the DMV accused Cruise of withholding video evidence of the accident from investigators. 

The state agency alleges that Cruise failed to show DMV accident investigators footage of the driverless car restarting and dragging the pedestrian. The company only provided footage of the incident up to the initial stop made by the autonomous car. 

However, Cruise has responded by denying the allegations. According to the company, DMV investigators were presented with the entire clip of the accident the day after it occurred. Whether that is true remains to be seen. That said, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is also accusing Cruise of withholding information.

Key Takeaways

Driverless vehicles will likely find their place in America at some point. However, current traffic laws in California and around the country are designed to police humans and not cars. Until these laws change, autonomous vehicles will enjoy impunity, and their creators may become even more emboldened to skirt regulations and the law.

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