Higher Regional Court of Karlsruhe classifies a touchscreen as an electronic device

Daniel Wuhrmann

As vehicles become increasingly digitized, vehicle functions are increasingly being transferred to multi-functional control panels. This trend may now be halted, at least in part, by an order issued by the Higher Regional Court of Karlsruhe on 27 March 2020 (Case No. 1 Rb 36 Ss 832/19).

Background and subject of the case

The case involved the conviction of a Tesla driver whose vehicle veered off of the roadway in heavy rain and collided with various obstacles. The accident occurred when the driver looked away from the road in order to adjust the speed of the vehicle's windshield wiper via a touchscreen in the center console.

The order from the Higher Regional Court of Karlsruhe upheld the ruling issued by the trial court, which had ordered the driver to pay a EUR 200.00 fine and banned the driver from operating a motor vehicle for one month. The basis for this ruling was the finding of unlawful use of an "electronic device" in accordance with § 23(1a) of the Road Traffic Regulations; both courts pointed out that the vehicle's touchscreen qualified as an "electronic device," so that it could only be operated subject to the requirements specified in § 23(1a) Sentence 1 of the Road Traffic Regulations. In accordance with these requirements, such devices may only be used if they can be operated by voice control or if they require no more than a "brief glance, accounting for road, traffic and weather conditions, as well as visibility." The latter was not the case, in the court's view, since the driver would have to navigate through various submenus in order to adjust the windshield wiper speed control, so that this could not be done with just a "brief glance." The fact that this function involved one of the vehicle's safety features is irrelevant to the two courts: because the touchscreen as a whole falls under § 23(1a) of the Road Traffic Regulations, all of its applications do as well.

Legal assessment and consequences

While this could change due to future legislation as vehicles become increasingly automated, the fact is that drivers are still responsible for adhering to the provisions of the Road Traffic Regulations.

But the Higher Regional Court of Karlsruhe has also clarified that operating a touchscreen is entirely permissible in accordance with § 23(1a) of the Road Traffic Regulations, provided this can be done with just a "brief glance."  What this means is that, certainly when it comes to safety features (such as windshield wipers), manufacturers should ensure in the future that such functions can be used easily, quickly and without excessive menu navigation.

If they fail to do so, vehicle manufacturers may be exposed to (liability) risks in such cases in the future.  In particular, it is possible that the vehicle will be considered defective since such a vehicle cannot be operated in a manner conforming to the Road Traffic Regulations. The manufacturer would also have to check whether and how this might affect any existing and future vehicle approvals.
A message appearing when the vehicle starts up stating that the driver is required to focus on the traffic situation at all times is not enough to relieve the manufacturer of liability if the vehicle's safety functions effectively cannot be operated without violating the Road Traffic Regulations.

[September 2020]