The person in the driving seat of a vehicle relying on self-driving features would no longer be held responsible for accidents and infringements under law reforms proposed today. Instead, under a new 'Automated Vehicles Act', sanctions would fall on the manufacturer or other body responsible for obtaining authorisation for road use, a joint investigation by the UK’s law commissions concludes

The government-funded report recommends drawing a clear distinction between automated features that merely assist human drives, for example adaptive cruise control, with those that take over entirely. In this case, the person in the driving seat would no longer be a driver but a ’user-in-charge’ who could not be prosecuted for offences arising directly from the driving task.

However, the user-in-charge would retain other driver duties, such as carrying insurance, checking loads or ensuring that children wear seat belts.

Responsibility for driving mishaps would fall on the 'authorised self-driving entity' that had the vehicle authorised for road use. Regulatory sanctions would also be available to the ‘in-use regulator’, the commissions propose. 

The commissions say their proposals build on the reforms introduced by the Automated and Electric Vehicles Act 2018 under which people who suffer injury or damage from a vehicle that was driving itself will not need to prove that anyone was at fault. 

No timetable has been set for any further legislative measures. In a statement, transport minister Trudy Harrison said: 'The development of self-driving vehicles in the UK has the potential to revolutionise travel, making every day journeys safer, easier and greener. That’s why the department funded this independent report and I look forward to fully considering the recommendations and responding in due course.'

Paul Loughlin, motoring law solicitor with north west firm Stephensons, said these recommendations 'rip up the rulebook when it comes to motoring law as we currently know it, whilst also presenting a legal blueprint for the future'.

He added: 'Liability has always been at the centre of many arguments about self-driving vehicles and this proposal provides a clearer picture about where that liability is placed. While car manufacturers will increasingly shoulder much of the legal burden, there will also be a responsibility for drivers to ensure they do everything within their power to minimise risk.'