Smart Transport

Law Commission proposes legal protections for autonomous vehicle users

Semi-autonomous car

Drivers of autonomous vehicles would not be liable in the event of a collision, according to new proposals and a joint legal report.

The Law Commission of England and Wales and the Scottish Law Commission have published a joint report, making recommendations for the safe and responsible introduction of self-driving vehicles.

Under the Law Commissions’ proposals, when a car is authorised by a regulatory agency as having “self-driving features” and those features are in-use, the person in the driving seat would no longer be responsible for how the car drives.

Instead, the company or body that obtained the authorisation should face regulatory sanctions if anything goes wrong.

The report recommends introducing a new Automated Vehicles Act, to regulate vehicles that can drive themselves and suggests that a clear distinction should be made between features which just assist drivers, such as adaptive cruise control, and those that are self-driving.

Nicholas Paines QC, public law commissioner, said: “We have an unprecedented opportunity to promote public acceptance of automated vehicles with our recommendations on safety assurance and clarify legal liability.

"We can also make sure accessibility, especially for older and disabled people, is prioritised from the outset.”

Modern vehicles are fitted with many driver assistance systems and the report anticipates that, in future, these features will develop to a point where an automated vehicle will be able to drive itself for at least part of a journey, without a human paying attention to the road.

For example, a car may be able to drive itself on a motorway, or a shuttle bus may be able to navigate a particular route.

The report follows a consultation into the legal ramifications of autonomous driving technology.

The Law Commissions recommend a new system of legal accountability once a vehicle is authorised by a regulatory agency as having self-driving features, and a self-driving feature is engaged.

The person in the driving seat would no longer be a driver but a “user-in-charge”.

A user-in-charge cannot be prosecuted for offences which arise directly from the driving task.

They would have immunity from a wide range of offences - from dangerous driving to exceeding the speed limit or running a red light.

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

If the vehicle drives in a way which would be criminal or unsafe if performed by a human driver, an in-use regulator would work with the car maker to ensure that the matter does not recur. Regulatory sanctions would also be available to the regulator.

In the case of autonomous taxis or minibuses, where there is no driver, any occupants of the vehicle would simply be passengers. Instead of having a ‘user-in-charge’, a licensed operator would be responsible for overseeing the journey.

Matthew Avery, chief research strategy officer at Thatcham Research, an organisation which was part of the consultation for the Law Commissions’ report, said: “The transition to safe introduction of automation with self-driving capabilities is fraught with risk as we enter the early stages of adoption.

"Today’s report  is a significant step, as it provides important legal recommendations and clarity for the safe deployment of vehicles with self-driving features onto the UK’s roads.

“In the next 12 months, we’re likely to see the first iterations of self-driving features on cars on UK roads.

It’s significant that the Law Commission report highlights driver’s legal obligations and they understand that their vehicle is not yet fully self-driving.  It has self-driving features that, in the near future, will be limited to motorway use at low speeds.

“The driver will need to be available to take back control at any time, won’t be permitted to sleep or use their mobile phones, the vehicle won’t be able to change lanes and if the driver does not take back control, when requested, it will stop in lane on the motorway.  It is critical that early adopters understand these limitations and their legal obligations.”

The report has been laid before Parliament and the Scottish Parliament.

It will be for the UK, Scottish and Welsh Governments to decide whether to accept the Commissions’ recommendations and introduce legislation to bring them into effect.

Our next event: register now

Smart Transport Conference November 22 LondonRegister today for our November 2022 conference

SAVE THE DATE – the next Smart Transport Conference will take place on November 22 at etc.venues, London.

25% discount until 31 May. Book now to reserve your place.

This a must-attend event for anyone who wants to understand how the public and private sectors can work together to achieve transport policy.

2021 conference

Register to attend

Comment as guest

Login  /  Register


No comments have been made yet.

Related content

Office Address
  • Smart Transport
    Media House
    Lynch Wood
    PE2 6EA
Join the community
  • Smart Transport is the UK's most important brand to bring together senior public policy makers and influential private sector leaders to showcase real-time solutions aligned to government policy.
  • Find out more
  • Insight


Welcome to Smart Transport

Welcome to the Smart Transport website, keeping you up-to-date with the latest news, insight and reports from policymakers and thought leaders.

The Smart Transport brand connects policy to solutions by bringing national government and local authority policymakers together with private sector organisations.

Contact Lindsay Greatbatch for more information.

© Bauer Consumer Media Ltd
Media House, Lynch Wood, Peterborough, PE2 6EA - Registered number 01176085 IPSO regulated logo


Smart Transport members

Smart Transport board members


Please note:
By submitting any material to us you are confirming that the material is your own original work or that you have permission from the copyright owner to use the material and to authorise Bauer Consumer Media to use it as described in this paragraph. You also promise that you have permission from anyone featured or
referred to in the submitted material to it being used by Bauer Consumer Media. If Bauer Consumer Media receives a claim from a copyright owner or a person
featured in any material you have sent us, we will inform that person that you have granted us permission to use the relevant material and you will be responsible for paying any amounts due to the copyright owner or featured person and/or for reimbursing Bauer Consumer Media for any losses it has suffered as a result.