Driving Into the Future: The Rapidly Changing Legal Environment of Cars

February 20, 2014

text while driving textingDo you remember your first car? I learned to drive in the 1980s using my mom’s old station wagon with a manual transmission, no power steering, no anti-lock brakes, no cruise control, and no air conditioning. Still, it was a pretty sweet ride for its time. After all, backup cameras, parking-assist systems, integrated cell phones, GPS navigation, DVD players, and Wi-Fi connections weren’t even a possibility, much less an upgrade that my parents didn’t purchase.

Fast forward to today though, and all of these technological advances are not only available – many are standard features of new automobiles.  People invest in them because they make driving easier, possibly safer, and definitely more enjoyable, but they also make the regulation of driving more complicated. For example, when I took my driving test, I didn’t need to know whether there was a law prohibiting texting while driving. I didn’t even know what that was. Now, 41 states have prohibited texting, and by the end of 2013, several others had enacted or proposed legislation to prohibit wearable computers, such as Google Glass, while driving. States proposing to ban the use of wearable computers while driving include: Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wyoming. (You can keep track of pending legislative developments by clicking on Proposed & Enacted Legislation under View after running a search such as “use of a wearable computer while driving” on WestlawNext. You can also check out this infographic on the rapidly changing legal environment of cars.)

Obviously, this isn’t the first time technology has been warily met by lawmakers, nor is legislation in response to concern over its safe use something new. For example, in the late 1890s, the Federal Commissioners denied an application for a motor vehicle to make deliveries in Washington, D.C. Although at the time European cities were allowing motor vehicles, the D.C. lawmakers cited the potential dangers that could arise when horses were frightened by the vehicle as their rationale for banning its use.

What is unprecedented, is the pace of technological change. Lawmakers are, however, catching up, and the volume of legislation to regulate today’s and anticipate tomorrow’s technology is growing. For example, four states have statutes regulating autonomous vehicles, currently being tested by Google, as well as traditional vehicle manufacturers, such as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, General Motors, and others. Jurisdictions specifically allowing autonomous vehicles to be driven on public roads under certain circumstances include: California (West’s Ann.Cal.Vehicle Code § 38750), District of Columbia (DC ST § 50-2351), Florida (West’s F.S.A. § 316.86) and Nevada (N.R.S. 482a.010, et seq.) Michigan will be the fifth jurisdiction to allow autonomous vehicles on public roads. Starting March 27, 2014, M.C.L.A. § 257.663, et seq., will allow the use of autonomous vehicles for testing purposes if certain conditions are met. While some may argue that self-driving vehicles are legal even without specific legislative support, having regulations that govern who may operate these vehicles where makes considerable investment in the technology safer for both creator and buyer.

And lest one think the relationship between laws and technology is solely one-sided, consider that technologists, consumers, and the legal counsel for both groups will also benefit from staying informed of new laws that will impact technology. For example, statutes banning cell phone devices without hands-free equipment may encourage purchases of Bluetooth headsets, whereas laws governing where after-market GPS devices may be placed so as to minimize impact on a driver’s visibility may encourage the sale of certain mounting devices. New York is one such state exempting the use of a hands-free mobile phone from its ban on mobile phone use while driving (McKinney’s Vehicle and Traffic Law § 1225-c).

Fortunately, for all – technologists and technophobes – Thomson Reuters’ Attorney Editors are monitoring these legal developments in response to technological changes. We will continue to update legislative, statutory, regulatory, and interpretative analytical materials on Westlaw Next to ensure all parties are aware of the changes as they happen.