Articles Posted in Cutting Edge Legal Issues

As technology advances, so too does the number of safety features available on cars. Maryland drivers can now purchase cars with features such as blind-spot monitoring, automatic emergency braking, surround-view camera systems, lane keep assist, and adaptive cruise control, to name a few. Famously, Tesla is actually producing automobiles with an autopilot mode, which uses radar and cameras to drive the car without the assistance of the driver. Autopilot mode, and other safety features, should reduce the number of Maryland car accidents that occur each year when they work as expected. But, unfortunately, these features cannot always be a guarantee of safety.

For instance, a video of a recent Tesla car accident recently surfaced raising concerns about the company’s autopilot mode. According to a recent article covering the incident, a large truck was lying on its side on the freeway, covering the entirety of the two lanes on the left. The traffic on the road was light, and the visibility was good—meaning the Tesla, driving in the farthest left lane, should have been able to see the truck. However, the Tesla drove at full speed directly into the top of the truck, indicating quite clearly that the driver was not paying attention. After the accident, the driver told authorities that the autopilot feature was on, raising interesting legal questions regarding liability.

While fortunately no one was hurt in the incident, similar accidents may cause severe injuries or even death. Maryland law allows those injured by negligent drivers to file a personal injury suit to recover for their injuries if they can prove the driver was at fault. In this case, a driver may want to blame Tesla and the failure of autopilot for causing the accident. However, it is important to keep in mind that autopilot mode is not intended to be a substitute for watching the road. While using the autopilot mode, Tesla drivers are still expected to pay attention to the road and keep their hands on the wheel. Not doing so is likely considered negligence and can be used to hold a driver liable for accidents that may occur while driving with autopilot on.

Over the past few decades, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of Maryland roadside accidents. Some attribute this increase to the more prevalent role technology has taken in most American’s lives, which in turn has led to more instances of distracted driving. Regardless of the underlying cause, many roadside accidents involve police officers, emergency medical technicians, and other emergency workers who are carrying out their duties when they are struck by a passing motorist.

Thus, back in 2010, Maryland lawmakers passed the state’s ‘move over’ law to protect those most at risk of being struck by a distracted driver. Under Maryland Code § 21-405, motorists are prohibited from passing an emergency vehicle while going in the same direction without either safely changing lanes or slowing down “to a reasonable and prudent speed that is safe for existing weather, road, and vehicular or pedestrian traffic conditions.”

Initially, Maryland’s ‘move over’ law applied only to tow trucks and emergency vehicles such as police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks. This offered some protection to these discrete classes of workers; however, the statute did not apply to non-emergency workers who still spent a significant amount of time along the side of the road.

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Taxis are a thing of the past. Or at least that is what companies like Uber and Lyft hope will soon be the case. Uber and Lyft are companies that have created similar applications that allow passengers to get picked up and delivered to their destination by non-employee, independent contractors who are then paid a percentage of the fare by the company. From a passenger’s perspective, the apps operate much like a traditional taxi service in that passengers will hail a ride through the app, a driver arrives to pick the passenger up, and then the driver delivers the passenger to their destination.

There are no special qualifications that are required to drive for these companies, other than being over 21 years of age, maintaining car insurance on the vehicle, and having a clean driving record. With the popularity of Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare apps increasing over the past few years, as well as the potential for inexperienced motorists acting as taxi drivers, it is natural that we are seeing an increase in Maryland car accidents involving Uber and Lyft drivers.

Rideshare companies are known for having a hefty insurance policy that protects passengers and drivers in the event of an accident. However, not all accidents involving an Uber or Lyft driver will be covered. It is easiest to understand the available coverage by breaking down each stage in a ride.

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Last year, one man was killed when he was driving a vehicle equipped with a semi-auto-pilot feature and crashed into a truck. According to a recent report discussing the findings of a National Highway Safety Board (NTSB) investigation, it appears that the driver of the vehicle was given many warnings to take control of the vehicle in the moments leading up to the fatal accident.

The Accident

The driver of the vehicle was traveling on a Florida highway on a sunny day, using the auto-pilot feature on his Tesla Model S. At some point, a semi-truck made a turn in front of the Tesla, and the driver of the Tesla failed to stop, slamming into the side of the truck. The driver was killed instantly.

After the collision, the NTSB conducted a year-long investigation, only recently releasing its findings. Apparently, for the 41 minutes prior to the accident, the vehicle was in auto-pilot mode for 37.5 minutes. For all but 30 seconds of that time, the driver had his hands off the steering wheel. According to the newly released report, the vehicle’s automated system warned the driver seven times to place his hands back on the steering wheel and retake control of the vehicle.

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Seatbelt use is one of the best ways to limit the potentially disastrous effects of a serious car accident. According to a recent news report, over the past few decades, lawmakers across the country have tried to cut back on the number of fatal car accidents by passing “click it or ticket” laws, requiring motorists to wear a seatbelt or be fined.

Indeed, Maryland has its own version of the click it or ticket law, which can result in an $83 fine if a motorist is caught driving without their seatbelt. In Maryland, a failure to wear a seatbelt is a primary offense – meaning a police officer can pull a motorist over based solely on not wearing a seatbelt – for drivers, front-seat passengers, and minors under the age of 16. For back-seat passengers over the age of 16, it is a secondary offense, meaning a police officer can only ticket a motorist if there was some other valid reason for the traffic stop.

While it cannot be disputed that seatbelts save lives, seatbelts can only limit the injuries sustained in an accident and can do nothing to prevent accidents themselves. As a result, courts across the country have had to determine whether a car accident victim’s failure to wear a seatbelt should be admissible evidence at a trial involving the at-fault driver.

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Over the past several years, the driverless car has become a reality. In fact, most major auto manufacturers have started production of semi-autonomous models and are developing fully autonomous models that would require no driver effort. However, as the technology for driverless cars advances, issues regarding safety and legal liability in the event of an accident are coming to the forefront of the conversation.

According to a recent news article discussing semi-autonomous cars, there is a division among auto manufacturers as to whether drivers are capable of taking over control of the vehicle when a potentially complex driving situation arises. With the current technology, vehicles alert a motorist when he or she will need to take over control because the on-board computer does not know what to do. Depending on the model of vehicle, the driver will then have somewhere between five and 30 seconds to take over control of the vehicle. However, some research has shown that sleeping or otherwise distracted drivers can take about two minutes to acclimate to the situation and safely take control of the vehicle. Because of these concerns, some manufacturers have opted to forego manufacturing semi-autonomous vehicles and focus on fully autonomous technology.

Another potential issue with driverless cars is who is liable when an accident occurs. At least one large auto manufacturer has stated that it plans on acknowledging liability in all accidents involving the company’s driverless technology. Other manufacturers, however, plan on handling each situation on a case-by-case basis. The unanswered question is whether the “driver” of an autonomous vehicle will also be liable. This is a question that only lawmakers or the courts can decide.

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Driving is the most dangerous activity in most commuters’ day, and it requires their full attention. It is commonly understood that drivers need to remain free of intoxication and distraction, and they also need to be adequately rested before getting behind the wheel. Along those same lines, drivers who suffer from some chronic medical conditions are told by their doctors that it is unsafe for them to drive a car. A new study discussed in an insurance industry news source discusses the lasting impact that a concussion can have on a driver’s ability to safely operate a vehicle.

According to the news article, the effects of a recent concussion on driving ability had not previously been studied, with most of the concussion-related research focusing on athletes, their performance, and the potential for long-term brain damage. This study consisted of 14 participants, all of whom had previously reported suffering from a concussion. Each of the participants was asked to come in for a driving exam 48 hours after they last noticed symptoms of their concussion. The results were frightening.

As it turns out, even 48 hours after the last recognizable signs of a concussion, drivers were still more likely to operate their vehicle in an erratic manner, much like a drunk driver. Specifically, the study reported that these drivers had less control over the vehicle and were more likely to swerve within their own lane of travel.

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Taxi-cabs may be a thing of the past. Companies such as Uber and Lyft offer people seeking a ride the ease of opening an app on their phone and securing a ride with a few clicks on their phone. The people providing these rides are often regular drivers who are looking to make some extra cash on their time off. They rarely have commercial driver’s licenses, and they are not required to get any special training before they can accept customers.

While convenient for many, this new model presents several legal issues if someone is struck by an Uber or Lyft driver. Whether the driver has a customer in the car may determine the level of assistance that the company will be willing to provide to the driver, and in turn to anyone hurt by the driver’s negligence.

The way the new model of ride-sharing works is that drivers can roam around waiting for fares to pop up on their smart phones. According to one article analyzing the potential legal implications, the process breaks down into three steps. First, the driver turns on the app and looks for a passenger. Second, the app matches the driver and the passenger. And third, the driver picks up the passenger and takes them to their destination. In the latter two stages, Uber or Lyft will likely cover the driver if anything goes wrong. However, if an accident occurs while a driver is roaming and waiting for a fare to come in, the company may deny any involvement.

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