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Driverless cars – what does this mean for road safety?

Posted: 30/01/2017

The Department of Transport has, this month, reported on a consultation and study involving the use of driverless cars and has concluded that an increase in automated vehicles will result in a reduction in delays and improved traffic flow.  While these improvements have to be a good thing, what are the implications in terms of safety and insurance issues?

The consultation looked in detail at the regulation necessary for the production and use of automated vehicles, examining not just the need for regulation as a whole but also the requirement for regulation that encourages innovation in this field rather than restricts it. It also considered insurance which is intended to be compulsory although the focus of potential liability will be on product liability – ie defects in vehicles causing accidents rather than driver actions on which current vehicle insurance is largely focused.

Attention was also paid to how wide the liability could and should be and novel issues that may arise. It looks likely that claims will be directed against the insurer of the vehicle, as they are now, in the first instance but in turn may be aimed at manufacturers through product liability claims.

Finally the consultation looked at issues such as modification of the Highway Code and guidance for drivers using automated vehicles. Additional guidance and amendment is anticipated.  

Changes to the insurance set up for automated vehicles will need to go through Parliament but the expectation is that the insurance reform, new Highway Code guidance and new regulation will all be approved over the course of 2017 – so automated vehicles on the roads really are becoming a reality.  There can be no doubt that reducing the number of drivers on the roads will in turn reduce human error – the cause of most road traffic accidents - and so improve safety.  The important thing will to be make certain that the insurance model provides protection for anyone who is injured due to an incident involving an automated vehicle and to keep a balance in regulation between encouraging technological advancement and maintaining safety.

The consultation highlighted the need to consider specifically situations relating to automated cars provided by employers and ensuring that vehicles are developed in a way that, as far as possible, incorporates safety measures aimed at vulnerable road users such as cyclists.

This year is set to be an interesting one and there is much work to be done – but if the framework can be properly created then the safety and traffic benefits of increasing numbers of automated cars are clear to see.


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