What would you do if your car could drive itself? For many Northern Virginia drivers who spend an hour or more in traffic each morning, self-driving cars seem like a way to ease the stress of bumper-to-bumper traffic. However, recent events have brought a new question to light. Who is at fault if a car on auto pilot causes an accident?

Joshua Brown, who loved his self-driving Tesla, was killed when his car collided with a semitrailer in Florida. He is the first victim of an accident in a self-driving car. While investigators are still piecing together the moments before the accident, there are reports that the driver was using a portable DVD player while he was behind the wheel.

The limits of self-driving cars are still being discovered and researched. It is likely that there will be more deaths as these cars become more common and people become acclimated to the new technology. Even though self-driving cars can navigate the road better than most drivers, there is still a need to pay attention to the road and manually intervene if the car is unable to.

Can Joshua Brown’s Family Sue the Other Driver?

If we discover that Joshua Brown was not paying attention to the road, we can presume that he partially contributed to his death. If this was the case, in Virginia his family would not be able to recover damages against the other driver. As we have mentioned many times, Virginia has contributory negligence laws. This means if you are at fault for an accident, even 1% at fault, you cannot recover damages against the other driver.

What This Means for Auto Accident Attorneys

Future attorneys will have to become familiar with new technology like self driving cars. It is likely that state laws will have to catch up with the new standards. Will drivers of self-driving cars be treated the same as regular drivers? Or will the company that makes and programs the car be liable for part of the accident? The companies that make these cars will likely have a user agreement for their owners which limit their liability if the driver is distracted or acting negligently in self-driving mode. Auto accident attorneys will become more familiar with these user agreements in the coming years, and the user agreement may become key in these types of cases.

Should I Wait to Buy a Self-Driving Car?

It is a personal choice the type of car you want to drive. For most drivers the cost of a self-driving car is a pretty high barrier to ownership. However if you were considering purchasing a Tesla or similar vehicle, make sure you are familiar with the user agreement and instructions of self driving cars. Contact your local DMV and ask what Virginia laws are in place for self-driving cars. Also, contact your insurance company and ask about their policy on self-driving cars. Read through all the available information carefully. When in doubt, call an auto accident attorney and have them review the user agreement.

The best advice for drivers of self-driving cars is to pay attention to the road. Self-driving technology is a breakthrough, but it is not a good substitute for attentive driving.

You can get a FREE copy of my book 5 Deadly Sins That Will Wreck Your Injury Claim If you have questions about your own auto accident, call (703) 584-7277.

Ben Glass
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Ben Glass is a nationally recognized car accident and ERISA disability attorney in Fairfax, VA.
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