Sunday 15 November marks 20 years of global recognition of the World Day of Remembrance for Road Traffic Victims, commemorating the millions killed over the years in road accidents. This anniversary has prompted William Broadbent of Penningtons Manches LLP’s personal injury team to look at possibly the biggest step in road safety of the 21st century – the 'driverless car'.

Since the invention of the first recognised 'production' in 1886, cars have become an indispensable item for people all over the world. With their increased popularity, however, came an inevitable increase in injuries and fatalities resulting from accidents, with fatalities estimated as exceeding one million per year. Whilst the figures are startling, technological advances continue to help improve road safety. Up until recently, the focus has been mainly on making vehicles as safe as possible, but car manufacturers are now moving their focus from the car to the driver.

Statistics suggest that over 90% of today’s road traffic accidents are a result of driver error. Campaigns on the risks of tiredness, alcohol, drugs and, more lately, technology have highlighted the dangers of distractions whilst driving but although they have resulted in significant improvement, human error is an inevitability. Car manufacturers therefore are looking to remove this.

Recent years have seen the introduction of more and more driver aids to reduce the risks of human error. Car 'radar' systems and automatic braking are now listed as extras or as standard on a number of cars. These are however only a stepping stone towards the currently much-publicised ‘driverless cars’.

The obvious safety benefit of flawless, driverless technology would be that by removing the driver from the equation, the risk of driver error is eliminated. Early tests have shown encouraging results, with very few incidents reported. In the quest for ‘accident-free roads’, this would show that investment in technology is well spent.

Removing the driver from the equation altogether, however, would raise concerns about relying too heavily on technology. The use of technology does lead to both legal and ethical questions which will have to be resolved before a car can go ‘fully automated’.

One of the main questions raised is what would happen if the computer system crashed – how could the driver prevent an accident? The potential of the computer system crashing would then lead on to an interesting legal issue as to liability – would this rest solely on the manufacturer for a ‘bug in the system’ or would the car’s registered owner be liable? This is a question that would need to be dealt with via legislation and would no doubt be a hotly contested issue.

Another, potentially more important question to road users is an ethical one as to who an automated car would protect in an unavoidable accident. The most commonly raised example is the ‘swerving dilemma’, where a car is proceeding down a road when a parent steps out unexpectedly with a pram. There is no time to stop and so a collision is inevitable. Swerving across the road would result in the car moving into the path of an oncoming vehicle or onto a busy pavement. In that split second, the driver or the car would have to make a decision as to what to do. For a driver, faced with an impossible situation, it would be socially accepted that they were reacting instinctively to an emergency, and therefore would not have time to weigh up all the pros and cons. For a driverless car, however, the decision would be based on pre-programmed algorithms which would mean that the software programmer would need to make a judgement as to who should be prioritised. Should the most vulnerable party be prioritised, or should self-protection take precedence. This would ultimately lead to conflict and ethical arguments and is a dilemma that would need to be solved before fully driverless cars could be used.

There are likely to be generations of semi-automated and highly-automated vehicles before the final step of fully-automated vehicles. Undoubtedly, increased automation in cars is the future and its importance to road safety cannot be overstated. Rather than handing control solely to a computer guided car, however, the answer may be to increase the interaction between drivers and cars – taking responsibility from drivers but not ultimately removing them from the equation so that the benefits of technology and ‘human experience’ are combined.