Now that the Apple Watch is here, drivers are about to get a whole lot more distracted. Nearly every state bans smartphone use while driving, but smartwatches like the Apple Watch are in a legal gray area. The big question: Even if it is currently legal to use a smartwatch while driving, is it safe?
Ironically, Apple’s newest product landed in April, which is Distracted Driving Awareness Month. The program is an effort by law enforcement and various advocacy groups to encourage drivers to leave their phones alone. But smartwatches present a unique challenge, given that they are worn on the wrist and may be more difficult to ignore than smartphones.
As is often the case, the law has not yet caught up to the new technology. The Governors Highway Safety Association has compiled the myriad distracted driving laws, which show just how much variance there is from one state to another. Smartphone use behind the wheel is illegal in most states, and last year California banned drivers from using Google Glass in the car. Also, many states have already enacted laws that require you to use a hands-free device while driving. For example, California bans all handheld use and text messaging while driving. Other states, such as Pennsylvania, specify messaging as the aberrant activity. Yet the law on the books isn’t always the full story. A California driver recently won a case when he was ticketed for using navigation on his phone while driving.
The Apple Watch is likely to usher in greater popularity for what before now had been a niche type of product. Estimates are that Apple sold 1 million Apple Watches in its opening week, with projections that the company may sell 30 million watches this year. Lawmakers will soon need to decide how smartwatch use behind the wheel should be regulated.
Even laws that severely restrict how drivers use gadgets may not reduce distracted-driving accidents. According to the National Safety Council, using a hands-free device is no safer, because you are just as likely to lose focus on the road from a hands-free conversation as you would from holding your phone while driving. More cars include dashboards that place and receive incoming calls. Many are voice activated: You can say, “call my wife” to initiate a conversation. But that action is just as distracting as looking at a screen, as the brain is still having its focus pulled away from the road. This doesn’t bode well for drivers using voice-activated smartwatches, including the Apple Watch, with which you can take calls Dick Tracy-style.
With smartwatches just hitting the mainstream, there is limited research about how they affect driving ability. However, a study in the U.K. found that a smartwatch is even more distracting than a smartphone. Its proximity makes it more tempting to look at, and stare at longer, than a phone screen. The research led the safety firm SmartWitness to push for an outright ban of smartwatch use in the car.
For now, you will not run afoul of any laws by looking at your smartwatch while driving. But the research thus far suggests it’s a dangerous idea. Looking at your watch will be especially tempting with all those text messages, emails, and fitness data notifications coming your way. It will take super-human self-discipline to ignore such gadgetry and remain focused on the road in the smartwatch era.
Derek Walter is a freelance writer in Northern California. He is the author of Learning MIT App Inventor: A Hands-on Guide to Building Your Own Android Apps.