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Autonomous vehicles could change DUI laws

Your safety is never guaranteed when you're behind the wheel. Even if you are being responsible, other drivers may not be. They may be texting, checking Twitter for the latest news or worse, drinking and driving.

In 2016, nearly 40,000 people died in vehicle accidents. A quarter of them died in accidents involving alcohol. Autonomous vehicles are promised by their advocates to fix these issues, as they are said to be safer than human drivers.

But what happens if you are drinking and driving in a vehicle that can drive itself? We will discuss this by using a real example.

DUI charge and autopilot

In January, California Highway Patrol officers were called to the scene of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, where a Tesla was parked in the middle of the highway. When officers approached the vehicle, they found the driver passed out behind the wheel.

Officers woke the man, and he tried to defend himself by saying his actions were okay because the car was on autopilot. His BAC was more than twice the legal limit, and he was arrested for DUI.

What this means for autonomous vehicles and DUI

In this example, there were certainly no blurry lines for the arresting officers about whether a person can be charged with DUI when driving on autopilot. However, it brings further attention to an issue that was discussed at the Governor's Highway Safety Association's annual meeting in 2017, just a few months before the Tesla incident occurred.

Currently, it is illegal in the U.S. to operate a vehicle or to enter a vehicle with the intent to operate it while under the influence. With the introduction of autonomous vehicles, it's possible there could be some changes to the law.

Overseas, Australia's National Transport Committee (NTC) is requesting that its government make changes to legislation surrounding alcohol-impaired driving to accommodate fully or highly-automated vehicles by 2020.

However, officials acknowledged that exceptions could be dangerous, such as when the vehicle wants the driver to take over. If the drunk driver does take over, he or she could be charged with a DUI offense.

Present and future

It is important to note that vehicles with autopilot require the driver to be alert when it is being used. Fully autonomous vehicles likely won't be on the road for many years to come, as the technology still needs further development. Therefore, DUI laws likely will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future.

As it stands, there have been no changes to DUI laws to accommodate autonomous vehicles, because an alert driver is still necessary for the operation of these vehicles, which means it's still illegal to drink and drive-whether on autopilot or not.

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