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How Safe Are Driverless Cars?

Author: Portner & Shure

Time and time again, our Washington D.C. attorneys see the devastating impact negligent drivers have of the lives of innocent victims and their families. Although many of these life-altering collisions are referred to as accidents, the reality is that most car crashes are no accident at all; they are the direct consequence of reckless and careless behavior.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), dangerous errors or choices people make behind the wheel account for 94 percent of all serious car accidents. This is a crucial statistic in the world of autonomous vehicles because it implies that once human operators are removed from the driving equation, there will hardly be any traffic wrecks at all. This is not true, however. As fully autonomous vehicles increase their road presence, collisions will still occur, just as they already have.

Will overall road safety improve? The answer is most likely yes, but by how much? The rate by which autonomous cars are accepted by the public and policymakers will be determined by one question: How safe is safe enough? Is a safety improvement of ten percent enough? Thirty percent?

Self-Driving Car Fatalities in the News

The effect of autonomous cars on public safety has been under scrutiny for some time. When accidents happen, particularly crashes that result in death, they make headline news. As of this writing, driverless cars have been linked with four fatal crashes:

  • January 20th, 2016: Handan, China - While the automated driver-assist system was operating, a driver of a Tesla Model S was killed when the vehicle slammed into a road sweeping truck.
  • May 7, 2016: Williston, Florida - The operator of a Tesla Model S electric sedan died in a crash while the vehicle was in the self-driving mode. The wreck occurred when Tesla failed to apply the brakes as a semi-truck made a left turn in front of it.
  • March 18, 2018: Tempe, Arizona - As a pedestrian pushed her bicycle across a multi-lane highway, she was killed by an Uber driver in a Volvo SUV while it was using driverless technology.
  • March 23, 2018: Mountain View, California - The operator of a Tesla SUV on autopilot mode was killed when the vehicle smashed into a road divider.

Comparing Appropriate Statistics

The first step to determining whether or not driverless cars are safe is to agree on a common standard of what constitutes an adequately safe driverless vehicle.

In 2016, self-driving cars were responsible for one pedestrian fatality. Compared to the more than 37,000 people who were killed by human-operated vehicles in the same year, autonomous cars may seem overwhelmingly superior in terms of safety. However, comparisons between automated vehicles and human drivers are at best uneven, and at worst, unfair.

Fatalities in motor vehicle accidents are measured in relation to every 100 million vehicle miles traveled. In 2016, for example, there were 1.18 deaths for every 100 million miles that Americans drove. To accurately determine whether autonomous vehicles are safer than their human-driven counterparts, we would need to know the number of miles they drove before the first reported death, and for now, that number is well below 100 million.

Uber’s autonomous program has only reached about two million miles. Another company, Waymo, has logged roughly four million driving miles. Even by adding the driving miles of all other companies currently working on fully autonomous systems, the total number isn’t anywhere close to 100 million.

Safety is Still in the Hands of the Driver

While it’s a fact that autonomous vehicles don’t get drunk, distracted, frustrated or tired, they are also incapable of foreseeing potential hazards down the road, they mostly drive from moment to moment. This means that for now, the two still need to work together.

Call Our Washington D.C. Attorney Today for a Free Case Review

No matter who was or wasn’t behind the wheel of the other vehicle, if you’ve been hurt in a car wreck, please contact our Washington D.C. attorney as soon as possible at (855) 954-4141 for a FREE case evaluation. Portner and Shure serve clients in the D.C. area including Maryland and Virginia.

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