Driverless dangers are here – and we need to be ready

26th Sep 2019

With an estimated 90% of road accidents caused by human error, the introduction of ‘autonomous features’ such as adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping assist and road-departure mitigation are expected to dramatically improve road safety. But reform is needed to ensure that road users are adequately covered if they are injured by a vehicle utilising one of these features.

Imagine you are stepping onto a pedestrian crossing and are hit by a car in which the driver has failed to brake. Under existing laws, you would be covered by your state or territory’s motor accident injury insurance scheme (MAII), which provides for medical and rehabilitation expenses, weekly payments for time off work, and usually some form of compensation.

Now imagine you are hit by a modern car with its emergency braking feature engaged. While the car might have stopped more quickly than if a person was operating the brake pedal, if you still sustained an injury, you might not be entitled to anything from your state’s MAII scheme given that the car was not under the control of a human driver. This would consign you to seeking treatment through the public health system and accessing any sick leave you had for time off work. And if the injury you sustained was serious, the difference in outcomes – and the impact on your financial situation – would be considerable.

Australia’s Transport and Infrastructure Council (TIC) has acknowledged this gap in personal injury coverage for anyone involved in crashes involving autonomous technology, vowing to provide recommendations and engage with state and territory agencies that oversee MAII schemes to ensure that all road users are adequately covered.

There has been strong support from governments, insurers, manufacturers and other stakeholders for a consistent national approach to regulation and injury insurance so that no person is worse off if injured in an automated vehicle crash. In particular, many stakeholders have called for existing MAII schemes to be expanded to cover injuries caused by autonomous technology. At Maurice Blackburn, we consider the existing schemes are robust enough to include these new scenarios and this would avoid the cost, delay and potential inequity of creating a new, separate regime to cover injuries caused by autonomous technology.

The introduction of autonomous technology presents many challenges beyond injury insurance coverage. The National Transport Commission has been canvassing many of these challenges by collecting submissions on:

  • how data generated by autonomous vehicles (AVs) will be used to ensure consumer privacy is adequately protected;
  • ensuring vehicles meet stringent safety standards before they’re released to market, and are dynamic enough to adapt in an environment where technology changes rapidly; and
  • determining how these stringent standards will apply after vehicles are released to market, given they will need to be serviced, modified and updated and must continue to be just as safe on the road on day 1,000 as they were on day one. 

It is encouraging that TIC recognises the importance of such considerations and acknowledges that urgent reforms are necessary. It also highlights how technology has the potential to outstrip the pace of regulation.

We need only look at the current apartment building crisis to see the devastating consequences of poor safety regulation. And when it comes to vehicles that have the potential to seriously injure and kill, it is essential that safety and protection for road users remains paramount.

An article by the author on this topic was previously published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Katie Minogue is a Senior Associate practising in the area of road and work injuries at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers and an Accredited Specialist in Personal Injury Law. She is the recipient of the Law Institute of Victoria’s Legal Writing Prize for her article ‘Into the future: The ultimate joy ride’ on the topic of driverless cars and transport accident law. She has prepared numerous submissions concerning the regulation of automated vehicle technology to bodies including the National Transport Commission, VicRoads and the federal government. She recently appeared in front of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Industry, Innovation Science and Resources in its inquiry into driverless vehicles.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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Tags: Compensation Transport accidents Personal Injury technology Katie Minogue