Who’s Driving?

The New York Times recently published this piece on Google cars that drive themselves.  And we’re not just talking about steering a straight line down the interstate.  One car even navigated the hairpin turns on San Francisco’s famously curvy Lombard Street.

The cars use navigation systems and software capable of sensing nearby objects and reacting to their presence.  Google cars reportedly have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with “only occasional human control.”

The Times notes that autonomous vehicles create “thorny legal issues” since the laws governing motor vehicles generally pin responsibility for their safe and lawful operation upon the driver–not the vehicle.  Apparently the presence in the Google cars of a driver capable of overriding any error avoids any problem with California law.

The operation of an autonomous vehicle without a human driver apparently would violate North Carolina law as well.  G.S. 20-163 prohibits a person driving or in charge of a motor vehicle from leaving it “stand[ing} unattended” on a public highway or public vehicular area without first stopping the engine, setting the brake, and, upon a grade, turning the front wheels to the curb or side of the highway.  Violation of this provision is negligence per se. Watts v. Watts, 252 N.C. 352 (1960).

North Carolina law considers driving to be an exclusively human act, though not one that requires that a vehicle be in motion.  The term driver is defined in G.S. 20-4.01(7) as being synonymous with the term “operator,” defined in G.S. 20.4.01(25).  Cognates of both words (such as drive, driving, operate, operating) also share the same meaning.  An operator is “[a] person in actual physical control of a vehicle which is in motion or which has the engine running.”

A defendant’s purpose for taking actual physical control of a car is not relevant to consideration of whether he was driving.  State v. Fields, 77 N.C. App. 404 (1985). Thus, in the criminal prosecution of defendants for offenses of which driving is an element, there is no requirement that the State establish that the vehicle was in motion with the defendant behind the wheel or that the defendant cranked the car for purposes of driving it.  Id. In State v. Fields, a law enforcement officer came upon a vehicle sitting in the right hand lane of the road.  The vehicle was motionless and defendant was seated behind the wheel.  The vehicle’s owner was seated on the passenger side.  Both the defendant and the passenger testified at trial that the passenger had been driving and stopped the vehicle on the street so that they could use the bathroom.  The defendant got back into the driver’s seat of the car and cranked it because he was cold.  The court found that this constituted sufficient evidence of driving in the prosecution of defendant for the offense of driving while impaired.

Driving can be established by circumstantial as well as direct evidence.  In State v. Dula, 77 N.C. App. 473 (1985), the court found sufficient evidence to justify the inference that defendant was driving where the driver of another car saw black tire marks on the highway, dust in the air, and a car, with its headlights on, lying on its top in a field near the highway. The driver of the other car stopped at the scene and  found the defendant in the overturned car, the doors of which were  closed and the windows rolled up. He did not see anyone else in the area. The investigating officer saw tire marks leading from the black marks on the highway across the highway shoulder and field to where the overturned car was.  The officer could not open the car doors.  Testimony from a witness for the defendant that the witness was driving the car and fled the scene did not render the State’s evidence insufficient.

Likewise, in State v. Riddle, 56 N.C. App. 701 (1982), the court found circumstantial evidence of driving sufficient to warrant submission of the case to the jury where the defendant was seen getting out of the car immediately after the collision and no one else was seen in or near the car.  Defendant said that his friend had been driving and left the scene of the accident, running through the woods.  A witness and law enforcement officers checked the woods and discovered no evidence to support the defendant’s claim.

Defendant claimed that the driver of the car left through the driver’s side door, but an investigating law enforcement officer was unable to open the door because of the damage it sustained during the collision. When the wrecker driver arrived, defendant pulled the keys to the car out of his pocket and handed them to the wrecker driver.

The court reached a different conclusion in State v. Ray, 54 N.C. App. 473 (1981), finding insufficient evidence to support the impaired driving charge where the only evidence that defendant was driving was that he was sitting “halfway [in] the front seat.” In Ray, an officer responded to an accident call and saw the defendant seated in a car that had hit two parked cars. There was no evidence that the car had been operated recently or evidence that the motor was running.

Solely for the prosecution of parking violations, it is presumed that a vehicle was parked and left upon a street or place by the person or entity in whose name the vehicle is registered.  See G.S. 20-162.1.

The Times reports that autonomous cars are “years from mass production,” but when and if they do hit the marketplace, they’ll doubtless require reconsideration of North Carolina laws founded on the notion that vehicles end up where they do as a result of human direction.

3 thoughts on “Who’s Driving?”

  1. I don’t think we’re going to see autonomous vehicles on the road for a very very long time. I’m sure we can build the car today but the legal and insurance issues with a car that drives itself would either make them too expensive for most to drive or they’d be banned from the road.


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