A Land Without OUIs

Cars are starting to drive themselves.

Don’t believe me? Go to YouTube. See a car drive itself down the highway. See it take left turns and right turns through a small town. See it navigate a busy parking lot, find a parking space, slide itself in – then see it pull out and drive over to pick you up at the touch of a button.

Some people have said that this will only work in the cities of California, that it’s impractical for bad weather or for rough country roads. This already isn’t true. Self-driving cars don’t follow a planned route; they use multiple cameras and millimeter-wave radar to plot and replot their context and their path. In a nutshell, they use digital eyes and ears to do what your eyes and ears do. The difference is, they do it better. So if you can drive on it, or through it, then so can they –  and all while you’re having a beer in the back seat.

How long will it be before you can go to the dealership (or click a button on Amazon) and get a self-driving car? How long before you can’t get any other kind? All I know is, the next car that I buy will not need me to drive it. I’m not sure if it will even have a steering wheel – and if it does, I doubt I’ll ever use it.

I can’t wait to try to convince my kids that we used to let pretty much anybody strap into multi-ton steel monstrosities, step on a gas pedal (a pedal!), and then hurtle down the roads and across the world at break-neck speeds. I can’t wait to show them a picture of Boston traffic and say, yeah, we used to expect each and every person to be able to negotiate through that, generally twice a day every day for their entire adult lives. I’ll tell them that there were tens of thousands of auto fatalities every year and that most of them were a person’s fault, and yet we kept giving out key after key. Then I’ll explain what a key is and they’ll fall out of their chairs laughing.

Every new technological innovation has indirect consequences. Economists call them ‘externals.’ Investors call them ‘opportunities.’ Business consultants, like myself, call them ‘a chance to be clever.’ So: what happens when cars drive themselves, safely and easily?

-There will be far fewer accidents.

-There will be far, far fewer accidents with a person at fault.

-Auto insurance premiums will aim right for the bottom.

-There will be almost no moving violations – and hence, no traffic tickets.

-The roadside motel will become somewhat archaic when you can stretch out and sleep in a moving car.

-Likewise drive-in movies when you can watch a movie while driving on.

-The quantity of street signage could be quite reduced. Hell, traffic lights might one day become a thing of the past.

-“X while you wait for your oil change!” won’t mean much when you car goes for its oil change without you.

-There will be no more DUIs – and no more drunk driving deaths. Zero.

It’s this latter that I’m particularly interested in exploring.

Let’s be clear about what it is: aside from the glory that I will be able to drink and drive (or more accurately – and even better! – drink and be driven), the number of drunk driving fatalities in this country will got from over 10,000 to 0. The number of OUIs – many of which are accident-related – will go from over 300,000 to 0. And the number of OUI related incarcerations, fines, and license suspensions, will zero out.

The introduction of self-driving cars will be one of the greatest revolutions in public health since the fucking Polio vaccine. But this leads to one external that, while I will not bemoan it, I do think that it is important to consider: without OUIs, a lot of lawyers are going to starve.

The profession of rural attorney is often based in very large part around OUI defense. I am an attorney, and I studied at a rural-state law school. Many small-town attorneys have expressed to me that a significant amount of their income derives from OUI defense. It is, to quote one northern Maine attorney, their “bread and butter” – to quote another, it’s “how they stay afloat.”

When self-driving cars become ubiquitous, the practice of law in rural America – already struggling – will become generally untenable.

Again, even as a lawyer, the idea that something would put a bunch of lawyers out of business does not exactly make me sit and weep. But there is a problem here. People need lawyers. From criminal defense to property transfers, to helping you get divorced or write a will, there are some things where it’s really good to be able to go to a professional. Just being able to drop by your local lawyer’s office and get advice can be invaluable in small towns – not the least because that lawyer might represent some big city know-how which otherwise that town just not have.

If the OUI faucet is turned off, many rural lawyers – probably most rural lawyers – are going to have to take down their shingle and close up shop. This means that most small towns in America will go from having one lawyer to none.Self-driving cars will create a law desert.

It’s good that they’ll make it easier, and safer, to drive forty miles – because that’s how far a lot of people are going to have to go in order to meet with an attorney.

And this presupposes that people have access to a car, which isn’t always true in rural America. In this way, self-driving cars might prove a reward to those who have cars, but a further punishment to those who don’t – advancing the haves but at the expense of the have-nots – serving, in short, to widen rural inequality.

There is a possible solution to this, in the form of distance lawyering. Your small town doesn’t have an attorney? You’ve got a telephone, right? You’ve got Skype? You don’t really need to have an in-person with a lawyer to get their opinion about the law. Just pick up the phone. Problem solved.

But there are some tough externals here too. First of all, I’m not sure that FaceTime really is the same as being face-to-face. Lawyering is about words and relationships. One might as well say that classrooms don’t need teachers, or camgirls are just as good as whores – they’re not unreasonable positions, but I am unconvinced. This also presupposes an access to telecommunications that a lot of people – poor, rural, old, off-the-grid, or any of the combinations thereof that are found out in Smalltown USA – just do not have.

Right now, if you lose your license or get your power turned off, you can walk to the lawyer’s office and get it sorted out. In this world you’re much less likely to lose your license. But if they shut off your power – or your cell phone – or your internet, you might be left stranded. A small town’s access to distributed goods and services can make it better – but its reliance on those external goods and services makes it extremely vulnerable. If they are removed, the small town isn’t hurt; it ceases being a town at all, and suddenly is just a few people out in the woods.

So this model of distributed lawyers could only work if there were some significant buttresses to rural access to telecommunications. This might mean guaranteeing rural internet access as a right; or at the very least, passing laws that some modicum of connection must be guaranteed, even during periods of nonpayment, while those payments are actively sought by the service provide. Or it might mean the guaranteeing – by direct or indirect state action – of public spaces in small towns where attorney/client conversations can occur. This might mean that smalltown libraries would each have “lawyer rooms,” equipped with computers and internet on the public dime, where people can call up their attorney at her office in god-knows-where and sort out their problems best they can.

But this implies a requirement of physical space – and, most likely, staffing – in each small town. This would not provide any new services to the people of these towns; it would simply replace the physical space that is currently occupied by the lawyer’s office, and the lawyer and the lawyer’s staff which occupy it. Moreover, it would transfer the cost of owning, operating, and staffing this physical space from a private entity to the town as a whole.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Requiring that the community as a whole chip in so that its least fortunate members may have access to justice is not an ethical difficulty for me. However, it asks the question: what would be more economical? To let the local attorney be driven out of town, necessitating public expenditures in order to assure continued local access to a no longer local attorney – or instead to pay that money directly to the attorney, offering them a baseline which will allow them to stay, to keep open their office, and to continue to provide their necessary service to their town?

I expect that there are a number of ways which this “rural retainer” could be structured. Perhaps it could subsidize incomes only as they are required (based on audits of monthly or yearly receipts). Perhaps it could pay for the attorney to take more pro bono work – maybe offering them a pro bono minimum, rather as Maine’s lawyers-of-the-day are currently assigned. Perhaps it could simply be a structured as a tax incentive, much as they are offered to corporations or money-making (filmmaking) activities. Or maybe the town will not bare the burden, but rather the state – in the interest of promoting rural access to justice – will have to step in and cover the cost.

Or, as with any other discussion of the problems of rural America, we could always get together and declare that we are content to watch our small towns wither and die. This is what is occurring now, and it will happen that much faster when each and every small town loses its local lawyer. Perhaps this is the right answer. Perhaps this is just the way of capitalism in the modern economy, in the modern world. But we should know the problem. We should discuss what we want to do or not do. For if we close our eyes, the problem won’t go away – rural America will. We can save it, we can help it transition to a new life somewhere else, or we can just help it die with dignitity. By ignoring the problem, oh, it will die – but it will be long, slow, and horrible, and full of crime, and drugs, and crimes against children, and children with no chance in life, and so much suffering.

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~ by davekov on 9 December 2017.

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