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Will self-driving cars reduce car accidents in California?

This week at the Consumer Electronics Show, carmakers are showing off their latest work on improving the self-driving car. Autonomous cars are now legal in California and one other state, and car companies are eager to show regulators and consumers the advantages of letting a computer take the wheel.

One major advantage that is often touted is the increased safety of a self-driving car. Humans are prone to small mistakes that can happen for a variety of reasons that may cause them not to see an oncoming hazard or to react too slowly to avoid one. In some cases, drowsiness or distraction from a cellphone can cause a driver to lose focus on the road, causing a car accident. With a self-driving car, those moments would presumably not happen as often or at all.

Advanced motion sensing technology would automatically make precise adjustments based on the exact speed and direction of an oncoming hazard, likely to be much more accurate than a human driver's perception. Carmakers are quick to remind consumers that having a smart, more capable car won't replace a driver's participation entirely, particularly in fast-moving situations where human judgment is needed to properly evaluate and react to different types of risk.

"That balance is very important, and that is why we are taking it one step at a time," said a spokesperson for Toyota, who is working on an autonomous model. "The vision is not to have a car drive itself but to have a co-pilot with much more information to assist the driver."

This is an important point of distinction for public safety purposes. Drivers are still ultimately responsible for what happens when they are behind the wheel and they have a duty to act with reasonable care no matter what type of car they are driving. Although the standard of care might look different in a car with advanced technology, drivers are still culpable if they are negligent in a way that causes a car accident.

Source: Washington Post, "Driverless cars and heightened road-safety technology unveiled at Las Vegas tech show," Cecilia King, Jan. 8, 2012

Our California law firm counsels car accident victims on their rights. More information is available on our San Diego personal injury page.

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