While the UK government motors towards driverless technology on British roads, an accident overseas has thrown a spotlight on an issue which was always going to be one of the key sticking points in the sector’s plans – who is legally responsible when an automated vehicle accident happens?

Just last month, an Uber driver in the US was charged with negligent homicide in connection with a road traffic accident in 2018 in which a pedestrian was killed. The incident – believed to the first of its kind caused by self-driving technology – happened when the safety driver overseeing the vehicle, Rafaela Vasquez, was watching a video on her phone.

Uber faced no charges related to the accident but chose to pause its testing of driverless vehicles for a year. The vehicles returned to the roads 12 months later with enhanced safety measures and decreased speed limits.

Harriet Mearns-Thomas, at Thompsons Solicitors, has been keeping a watchful eye on the case and the advance of automated vehicle plans for the UK. Her key concerns are the questions such developments pose for the insurance and legal sector.

She said: “Advances in the technology of automated vehicles are clearly racing ahead and, while it is widely promoted by government to be a safe solution for our roads, it’s up to those of us who represent injured people to ensure that if things go wrong there are parties we can hold responsible for the technology they build.

“Victims and their families must be able to seek justice when casualties occur and any loopholes in the system - allowing developers and owners of systems and fleets to walk away and pass the buck to the drivers brought in to operate the systems - must be closed down. The sad reality is that statistically accidents will happen – no matter how safe the technology is reported to be - and there has to be the ability for those injured, possibly fatally as happened in the US, to claim compensation.”

The government’s Vehicle and Technology Bill of 2017 attempts to set out a framework to address the way liability for accidents involving automated vehicles should be apportioned. However, it does not answer all the questions surrounding the complicated issues of liability resulting from the use of driverless cars.

Thompsons Solicitors aims to continue to monitor the legal implications.

Harriet added: “We maintain our position that insurers are automatically liable for damage caused by an automated vehicle and, if no insurance has been correctly obtained, the MIB scheme be extended.

“Road safety must not end up second place to a rushed and poorly-thought out scheme because some are entranced by the concept of a new mode of travel and government and insurers have been willing to play them along in the hope of savings or in the rush to be first. Accountability has to be the first priority if society is going to have faith in what will be a new era for drivers in the UK.”