When someone is injured in a car accident, the question of liability is central to obtaining full compensation. If a driver fails to yield the right of way, fails to obey traffic signals or laws, makes a sudden stop, or fails to signal properly, their level of responsibility for a resulting accident rises. But what if the car was driving itself? Who is responsible then?

It might sound like something from a science fiction book, but it’s becoming more and more common every day here in the Mid-Hudson Valley. One of the most popular kinds of “Advanced Driver Assistance System” (ADAS) car brands is Tesla, which currently offers a program called “Autopilot” and with an upcoming software update, “Full Self-Driving” on all of its cars built after 2014.

Thanks to a program called EValuateNY, we can measure how many Teslas were registered in every region of New York State as of 2020. If you’re on the road in the Mid-Hudson Valley, you have the highest chance, by far, of sharing it with a Tesla, than anywhere else in New York State. The Mid-Hudson Valley has more than double the Teslas per capita that the #2 region, Long Island, has:

RegionPopulation# of TeslasPeople Per Tesla
Mid-Hudson2,290,8516,636345
Long Island7,647,2868,551894
Capital Region1,171,5931,1461,022
New York City8,175,1337,0671,157
Southern Tier751,6933582,100
Finger Lakes1,212,9294852,501
Central NY1,177,0734272,757
North Country432,7731433,026
Mohawk Valley622,1331693,681
Western NY2,800,8787123,934

Within the Mid-Hudson Valley, we can explore this trend further:

CountyPopulationTeslasPeople per Tesla
Westchester949,1134,499211
Rockland311,687678460
Putnam99,710213468
Ulster182,493299610
Dutchess297,488477624
Orange372,813421886
Sullivan77,547651,193

Westchester County has the most Teslas per capita in the Mid-Hudson Valley, while Ulster and Dutchess County are in the middle of the pack, still far above the rest of the state.

There are currently 44 Teslas registered in the Kingston, NY zip code, 41 in New Paltz, 34 in Saugerties, and 30 in Woodstock. There are 82 in the 12601-12604 Poughkeepsie zip codes,72 across Hopewell Junction and East Fishkill, 47 in Wappingers Falls, 42 in Rhinebeck and 19 in Beacon.

What are the safety concerns of self-driving cars?

Self driving cars are only going to become more common in the future. With Teslas specifically, self-driving and autopilot features currently only work if the driver keeps their hands on the wheel, also known as “partial automation.” A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that drivers’ attention slips as they get more and more used to automated features like adaptive cruise control and lane centering.

The study said:

“Drivers were more than twice as likely to show signs of disengagement after a month of using Pilot Assist compared with the beginning of the study. Compared with driving manually, they were more than 12 times as likely to take both hands off the wheel after they’d gotten used to how the lane centering worked.”

This leads us to what the legal issue is with cars with assisted driving or self-driving features in 2020. If a car with these features is involved in an accident, we first have to determine if the car’s self driving features were engaged at the time of the accident. If the answer is yes, we then have three avenues to go down:

  1. Did the driver AND the technology contribute to the crash? For example, did the technology give the driver a later than usual warning about hitting a bicyclist, but the driver still had enough time to manually apply the brakes and failed?
  2. Did the driver make a mistake? Perhaps the driver was inattentive while the technology worked properly, and failed to provide input at the right time.
  3. Did the technology fail? Perhaps the assisted driving features failed to provide an adequate warning about an upcoming obstruction, or the emergency brakes didn’t activate in time to prevent a collision. If the technology is the main cause of an accident, then the vehicle manufacturer needs to be held responsible.

A case study in California

In 2018, a man in California was driving his Tesla Model X to work on a highway in Silicon Valley. The car steered into a concrete median, killing the driver in a fiery wreck. The car was in “Autopilot” mode, leading to his widow filing a lawsuit against Tesla and the California DOT. 

The suit alleged that Tesla was aware, or should have been aware, that “the Tesla Model X was likely to cause injury to its occupants by leaving travel lanes and striking fixed objects when used in a reasonably foreseeable manner.”

The status of that litigation is unknown, but two years later, the National Transportation Safety Board released reports that walk through the circumstances of the accident. 

Among the findings:

  • The driver had complained about a navigation glitch at the scene of the accident several times to his family and friends, but not to Tesla
  • The driver often was playing a game on his phone during his morning commute, but it was unconfirmed if he was playing at the time of the accident
  • Several other accidents had occurred at the same location in the years prior, leading to questions about the roadway design
  • The California Department of Transportation had failed to replace crash attenuator (a device that softens the blow of a car’s impact) at the scene of the accident, which would have increased the victim’s chances of surviving the accident

If you’ve been injured in an accident with a self-driving car, do not hesitate. Call us at 845-600-0000 to schedule a free consultation at our offices in Kingston and Poughkeepsie.