Soon after the House passed the SELF DRIVE Act by unanimous voice vote in September 2017, the Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved the AV START Act in October 2017. This legislation is necessary to speed deployment of lifesaving self-driving cars, which offer the promise of greatly reducing the more than 37,000 annual road fatalities by eliminating the driver error and misbehavior that is currently responsible for more than 90 percent of automobile crashes.
Unfortunately, for months, trial lawyers represented by the American Association for Justice (AAJ) have held up a floor vote in the Senate. This occurred after a major loss for the plaintiff’s bar in May 2018 in the Supreme Court’s Epic Systems decision, which held that class-action waivers in employment arbitration agreements are enforceable under federal law.
After the trial lawyers’ defeat, AAJ latched onto the AV START Act to seek a consolation prize by demanding that the bill explicitly prohibit pre-dispute arbitration clauses in automated vehicle customer contracts. Despite being at most a tangential issue in this policy debate—and one that is entirely self-serving to the trial lawyers—Democrats rely heavily on AAJ’s millions of dollars in annual campaign contribution and lobbying support, and AAJ’s support was badly needed going into the 2018 midterm elections. Unsurprisingly, the AV START Act stalled in the Senate.
Earlier this week, negotiations between the Senate Commerce Committee and AAJ seemed to have reached a long-awaited resolution. A bipartisan committee staff draft was circulated containing the arbitration prohibition AAJ had demanded and AAJ signaled support for the revisions. But today, AAJ announced it was still opposing the revised AV START Act.
Now that the election is behind them, Senate Democrats should stand up to their trial lawyer donors, and pass the AV START Act. The clock is ticking, with a deadline to attach the AV START Act to the appropriations omnibus likely coming up in less than a week. It is also likely that this will be the last shot at creating a comprehensive national AV regulatory framework until at least the 2020 surface transportation reauthorization.
Failure to enact comprehensive federal AV legislation this Congress will delay the introduction of these lifesaving automated vehicle technologies and lead to more preventable highway fatalities. AAJ has made clear that it puts its members’ narrow interests ahead of the lives of American road users. Senate Democrats shouldn’t make the same cynical—and quite possibly deadly—decision.