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Can you legally operate a semi-autonomous car while drunk?

With an estimated 121 million drunk driving incidents each year, society is working frantically to cut down on the potential harm. You may also be working to cut back on drinking, especially when you're going to drive.

One way our society might cut down on the harms of drunk driving is to take drivers out of the equation and leave the driving to autonomous vehicles. There are already several vehicles on the market that have the ability to drive for many miles without any real input from the driver. Could a drunk person legally get behind the wheel of a Tesla or another, similar semi-autonomous vehicle?

The technology is simply not there yet. Tesla's Autopilot and similar systems aren't actually meant to replace drivers. The human occupant of the driver's seat is supposed to pay constant attention to the road and be ready to take over if required. Indeed, there have already been several fatal accidents that occurred when drivers assumed they could turn their attention from the road.

Moreover, it's illegal to be drunk in the driver's seat of a semi-autonomous vehicle. Tennessee law holds people responsible for DUI whenever they are intoxicated and in "actual control" of a motor vehicle. Since drivers of the most recent semi-autonomous vehicles are supposed to remain vigilant, they would almost certainly be considered in actual control of such a vehicle.

Never assume that your semi-autonomous vehicle can drive for you

Some even argue that the existence of semi-autonomous vehicles could increase drunk driving. Recently, a Forbes contributor made that case by pointing out that even sober drivers have been concluding that today's semi-autonomous cars can be relied upon to do all the driving with no human input.

How much more likely are they to draw the wrong conclusion when they are intoxicated?

You might think that a drunken driver in an autonomous vehicle would be, at the least, an improvement over one in a regular car. After all, these vehicles often have a variety of collision avoidance systems in place, such as warnings when the car drifts from its lane.

The Forbes contributor argues that the self-driving feature and collision avoidance technology might keep drunk drivers out of trouble, but they could just as easily lure them into a false belief that they will be safe. And, if drivers are lulled into a sense of safety, they might be more inclined to drive when they are drunk.

Even if you have one of today's most modern semi-autonomous vehicles, it's still not enough for you to rely fully on the vehicle to drive. The day will eventually come when vehicles require no input from drivers, but that day has not yet arrived.

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