Law & Order Newsom Style: Driverless Cars Are Untouchable by California Traffic Citations

In California, self-driving cars are navigating city streets free from the risk of receiving traffic tickets due to current legal limitations in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s troubled state.

NBC News reports that the rapid advancement of autonomous vehicle technology in California has highlighted a major legal oversight: driverless cars, despite being involved in various traffic collisions and violations, are currently immune from receiving traffic tickets. This is due to the fact that California’s traffic laws are designed — unsurprisingly — around the idea that a car involved in a crash will actually have a human driving it, leaving self-driving vehicles in a legal gray area.

Cruise Robotaxi (Cruise)
Pedestrian killed by self-driving Uber vehicle in Arizona (The Associated Press)

Law enforcement cannot issue moving violation citations for incidents involving self-driving cars running red lights, obstructing emergency responders, and swerving into construction zones, despite these being common issues for self-driving cars. This immunity extends to all driverless vehicles in the state, regardless of the type of crash or traffic violation. An internal memo from the San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott explicitly instructs officers that no citation for a moving violation can be issued if the autonomous vehicle is operating in a driverless mode.

Irina Raicu, the director of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, commented: “I think all of us are still struggling to understand whether [driverless cars] really are safer than human drivers and in what ways they might not be.”

Raicu added: “It seems like while they make fewer of the kind of mistakes that we see from human drivers, they make interesting new kinds of mistakes. It has the feel of a human subject mass experiment, right? Without the kind of consent that we usually want to see as part of that.”

Critics have argued that this legal loophole has created a double standard, favoring driverless vehicles over human drivers. Michael Stephenson, the founder of Bay Area Bicycle Law, emphasized the need for California to develop new laws to address this technological evolution effectively. “We’re perhaps trying to shove a square peg into a round hole,”  he said. “We are very much in the Wild West when it comes to driverless cars.”

While California attempts to address this issue, states like Texas and Arizona have already adapted their traffic laws to accommodate autonomous vehicles. In these states, the owner of a driverless car is considered the operator and can be cited for traffic violations, regardless of their physical presence in the vehicle.

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