Self-driving cars have seen rapid advancement and adoption in the US over the past several years. Many new vehicles already include features like automatic brakes and parking. It comes as no surprise, then, that General Motors, Ford and other automakers are investing in fully autonomous vehicles, following Tesla’s lead.”
Of course, these new developments within the auto industry have prompted many people to question whether DUI laws will change with the introduction of new technology. Will police officers still charge someone with a DUI if they’re intoxicated but only sitting behind the wheel, letting their car drive them home?
To answer that question, it’s necessary to take a closer look at the various levels of vehicle autonomy and what constitutes a DUI.
What Makes a Car Self-Driving?
Convenience features like cruise control and anti-lock brakes have been around since the 1950s. However, it wasn’t until the 21st century that the automotive industry began installing more advanced technology. Now, drivers are experiencing the integration of partially autonomous vehicles on U.S. roadways. These cars aren’t fully self-driving, however.
Cars fall into one of five automation levels — zero being no automation and five being full automation. Currently, the highest level available to the public is level three, which denotes “conditional automation.”
In other words, the driver is a necessity but doesn’t have to monitor their environment to stay safe. They can sit in the driver’s seat and let the car steer, but they have to be ready to take the wheel at any moment.
Because of that, you could receive a DUI charge if you’ve been drinking. However, levels four and five, which indicate high and full automation, may not require a driver to take control. In these instances, law enforcement may not charge a driver with a DUI.
How Do You Define a DUI?
Roughly one-third of all traffic-related deaths involve drunk drivers, resulting in nearly 30 lives lost each day. These troubling statistics have caused many states to crack down on blood alcohol content limits and drunk driving penalties. Thus, many localities have different consequences and definitions for driving under the influence.
For instance, Indiana, Massachusetts and Idaho have increased penalties for persons that exceed a 0.2% BAC. Meanwhile, Utah’s BAC is set at 0.05% so, if someone above this level were to climb in the driver’s seat of a self-driving car, the state might charge them with a DUI. Many other states will also charge a person for sitting in the front with their keys in the ignition, even if they never start the engine. Thus, a self-driving vehicle would be of no help if these laws remain the same.
Moreover, states are constantly revising their legal policies and regulation enforcement. Some local jurisdictions may be either stricter or less harsh when penalizing someone over the legal BAC limit. Thus, even if they were to change laws surrounding DUIs and autonomous vehicles, one state’s legislation may be completely different from another’s. Crossing state lines would complicate things as well.
Navigating New Terrain
As the U.S. moves into the realm of self-driving vehicles, lawmakers must redefine drunk and distracted driving. Until then, they’ll be navigating new, unfamiliar terrain when it comes to charging someone with a DUI.
Can they fine someone for typing in the coordinates to their house after they drank too much? Will they still send a person to jail for sitting in the driver’s seat while their car chauffeured them home?
These are the kinds of questions lawmakers will have to consider in the coming years. Once cars are capable of full autonomy, you’ll likely see widespread support for letting a car drive you home — regardless of whether you’ve been drinking. However, the first wave of mass-produced AVs will be fleets of taxis, so there will be plenty of time to discuss and debate legislation before they make their way into the hands of the typical consumer.
The Future of Autonomous Safety
Self-driving cars can provide a safe ride home for those who had one too many. However, other technological advancements may be just as effective — and just as controversial. For example, Congress is currently debating whether to require breathalyzers or driver alcohol detection systems in new cars. These devices would function as ignition interlocks that prevent the vehicle from starting if a person’s BAC is above the legal limit.
Car companies like Volvo have also begun installing cameras in all new cars to curb distracted and drunk driving. It also announced that it would fit 112-mph top speed limiters to upcoming fleets. These additions have received both criticism and acclamation because they’ll try to take control of the vehicle if they detect unsafe driving habits. Many drivers see them as an invasion of personal privacy, which is a valid argument.
Even so, more manufacturers will inevitably adopt these new technologies to automate cars and keep drivers safe. Drivers who don’t mind risking a DUI charge or disagree with their intrusive nature will simply refuse to purchase vehicles from these companies. If the people who could benefit from this technology don’t utilize it, then autonomous cars and related tech won’t make a dent on drunk driving.
Still, lawmakers will likely make new rules to define drunk driving in a fully automated vehicle. Luckily, they’ll have at least a few years until they have to put them into practice.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this newsletter are those of the author.