Drunk Driving in a Self-Driving Car

Drunk Driving in a Self Driving CarThese days, there isn’t a lot that a car can’t do. They can parallel park for you, help you stay in your lane, apply the brakes and, amazingly, even drive for you.  Self-driving cars, also known as autonomous vehicles, are famously made by Google and Tesla, but all major manufacturers have plans to roll out with driver-less vehicles in the next few years.  These vehicles of the future are expected to increase fuel efficiency and decrease the number of car accidents, since studies show that most motor vehicle accidents are due to human error.

In theory, many people stand to benefit from this technology, including anyone who might otherwise plan to get behind the wheel while distracted.  For instance, one of the first things that many people think is that this technology will eliminate the need to worry about drinking and driving.  It would be natural to assume that you can go out to your favorite bar, have a few beers, summon your vehicle to pick you up at the door step, and get home without doing anything more than tell the vehicle, “take me home.”  Unfortunately, this might just be a fantasy.  In reality, things are much more complicated.

With new developments in the self-driving car industry over the last few years, lawmakers and citizens alike have started asking whether someone can be convicted of a DUI/DWI if he or she is behind the ‘wheel’ of a self-driving car. Unfortunately, there is not a clear legal answer to that question yet in New Jersey. There are very few truly self-driving cars on the roads right now in the country, so a case involving a self-driving car and a DUI/DWI conviction simply has not yet come up in court.  However, based upon pending legislation and news, the answer seems to be pointing toward “yes,” you will be able to be convicted of a DUI/DWI while operating a self-driving car if you are pulled-over and found to be intoxicated while behind the wheel in this State.

Driver Assistance Technology vs. Autopilot

First, it is important to recognize that many cars on the road already include some of the technology that is in a self-driving car – including automatic parallel parking, automatic braking, and the ability to match speeds with other vehicles in cruise control. These features, by themselves, do not make a car fully-autonomous.  For the most part, the person behind the wheel in one of these vehicles is still in control and is considered “driving.”  Such a driver could definitely be convicted of drunk driving.

Tesla is one of the few manufacturers that includes an auto-pilot feature, which is one of the closest things to self-driving currently available.  However, even Tesla Motors specifically states that its auto-steer feature is currently still in testing, and that it should only be used on highways where there are clear lane markings or where there is another vehicle that can be directly followed.  The feature also requires the driver to periodically touch the wheel or else the feature will turn off.  Therefore, a person behind the wheel of a Tesla is still driving and is still expected to control the vehicle in certain situations and take over when the car’s computers cannot do so.  Therefore, a court will likely find that someone operating a car in autopilot could still be convicted for driving while intoxicated.

Laws Requiring Ignition Interlock Devices on All Self-Driving Cars

At some point, cars will become even smarter than they are now.  For that reason, legislators are already preparing to address those people who will want to drink and get behind the wheel of a self-driving car.  A new bill that was introduced in 2016 wants to make it a requirement for all self-driving cars sold in New Jersey to have an ignition interlock device installed in order to prevent drivers from starting the vehicle while intoxicated and evading state statutes that prohibit drunk driving. The bill, which was introduced by Assemblywoman Nancy J. Pinkin, is currently still making its way through legislative committees.

Self-Driving Vehicles and Driving Drunk

Whether or not laws like the ignition interlock requirement pass, legislators across the country are leaning towards considering any person who is behind the wheel of a vehicle to be driving, whether the car is self-driving or autonomous or completely manual.  This is because drivers in autonomous vehicles will still be seated in the driver’s seat, and will be expected to monitor the car and be available to take control in case of an emergency.  Regardless of whether a vehicle is in auto-steer or autopilot mode, the person behind the wheel will still be able to use the brake pedal and the accelerator if necessary.  This person could also take over from the computer if he or she wanted.

For that reason, the International Council on Alcohol, Drugs and Traffic Safety, considers driving to include the actions that require a person to start the car, enter destination instructions and put the car into self-driving mode.

When it comes to DUIs and DWIs, what this means is that anyone who is behind the wheel of a self-driving vehicle can be considered the driver and in actual control of the car.  If you are pulled over and found to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, a court will be able to say that you are still in actual, physical control of the car.  Therefore, you could still be found guilty of DUI.  If you find yourself charged with driving under the influence at any time, no matter what technology is available in your vehicle, it is important to contact an experienced DUI attorney who can review the complicated facts of your case and explain to you what your rights.

New Jersey DWI Attorney Edward M. Janzekovich Can Help Persons Suspected of Driving Drunk

If you have been arrested, charged or convicted of DWI/DUI, refusal to submit to a breath test, or driving with a restricted license, you could be facing serious penalties – jail time, heavy fines, and loss of license – that can seriously affect your ability to care and provide for yourself or your loved ones.  No matter the charges, it is extremely important to contact an experienced attorney who can explain what rights you have and is prepared to present the best defense in your case.  A good lawyer can make all the difference.   To speak with an experienced New Jersey DWI lawyer about your situation, call us at 732-257-1137 or contact us online today.  We serve clients in Ocean County, Monmouth County, Mercer County, Middlesex County, Union County and Somerset County.