Long before there were electronic devices, there were driver distractions. However, as technology has developed, the problem has grown. At any given moment during the daylight hours, researchers estimate that over 800,000 vehicles are being driven by someone on a handheld cell phone.
In recent years, smartwatches have become the latest digital device that poses a distracted driving risk. Most people are aware of the risks of using smartphones while driving, but what about smartwatches?
What Is a Smartwatch?
A smartwatch is a wearable computer in the form of a wristwatch. In addition to telling time, smartwatches provide wearers with instant messages, texts, alerts of incoming calls, and social network updates. Smartwatch software may also include digital maps, personal organizers, and health-related applications. Like other computers, a smartwatch gathers information from internal or external sensors, and it may control, or retrieve data from, other devices or computers.
Using a smartwatch, a driver can receive notifications of text messages or emails, read and respond to them; send reminders or calendar notifications; either answer or decline incoming calls; play music; or operate a GPS. The increasing use of devices and the dangers of distracted driving have concerned people for a long time. The dangers of texting or using a smartphone while driving is well-publicized. However, smartwatches bring new issues to the world of distracted driving.
What Is Distracted Driving?
Careful driving can be difficult under the best of circumstances. Driving while distracted is far more difficult and more dangerous. Distracted driving is driving while engaging in any behavior that could potentially take your attention away from the most important area of focus: the road in front of you. Like reckless driving, driving while distracted endangers yourself, but also any passengers, other drivers, and nearby pedestrians. In just one recent year, 2,841 fatalities took place because of distracted driving.
These three risky forms of distraction make driving more dangerous:
- Visual distractions, which means anything that takes a driver’s eyes from the road or even for a split-second.
- Cognitive distractions, which includes anything that keeps your mind from focusing on driving
- Manual distractions, which are often combined with visual distractions. It means taking your hands off the wheel for any reason.
Some activities involve multiple distractions. For example, texting while driving requires you to look at a screen, type using your hands, and think about what you’re writing. The effect of using a cell phone, whether it is handheld or hands-free, adversely affects a driver’s reaction time. In some cases, it delays drivers’ reactions to the same degree as a blood alcohol level of .08 percent.
Distracted Driving and Smartwatches
Some people assume that smartwatches are safer because their features are voice-activated. However, safety experts say that hands-free devices can be just as dangerous as handheld ones because they divert the driver’s attention from the road.
The Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM), a U.K. based road safety group, warns that smartwatches are potentially more dangerous than smartphones, because while a driver can usually operate a smartphone with one hand, a smartwatch actually requires two hands. One hand wears the smartwatch and the other hand operates it. Even if the information just scrolls across the screen, you need to look at it, sometimes by raising the watch to eye level, to read the notifications.
Additionally, notifications and alerts are hard to avoid. The device on your wrist may be vibrating, making some kind of noise, or lighting up. Unlike phones, which can be left in a pocket or cup-holder and ignored, when a wearable device is going off, there is a strong temptation to check it.
The screens on many smartwatches are smaller than those on smartphones. It may take slightly more time to look at it. However, even a brief moment of inattention can be deadly. In one experiment done in the U.K., a driver’s reaction time was 1.35 seconds when he was holding a hands-free phone conversation. By comparison, reading a text on a smartwatch took an average of 2.52 seconds to react to an unexpected event, compared with 0.9 seconds when he was talking to a passenger in the car. He also veered out of his lane four times while using the smartwatch.
Distracted Driving Laws
Most states do not specifically discuss the use of smartwatches while driving. Is using a smartwatch a distracted driving offense?
Not in Illinois, for example, but there it does not make the use of such devices legal. Under Illinois law section 625 ILCS 5/12(b), “A person may not operate a motor vehicle on a roadway while using an electronic communication device.”
According to section 625 ILCS 5/12(a), “Electronic communication device” means any electronic device, such as a smartphone or laptop, but does not include a GPS or navigation system that is integrated into the car’s system.
This statute does not specifically list smartwatches as an example of an electronic device, but the statute may include electronic communication devices other than those specifically stated in the statute. Also, smartwatches are not specifically excluded in this statute. Therefore, the statute may characterize smartwatches as an “electronic communication device.”
Originally, under the 2014 law, a first offense for texting while driving was not a moving violation and thus did not affect the individual’s driving record. However, as of July 1, 2019, a person cited for driving while texting can receive a moving violation. The violation goes on their driving record and if a driver commits three moving violations within 12 months, their license may be suspended. In addition, the law established fines for first-time offenders. The penalty for a first offense is $75, $100 for a second, $125 for a third, and $150 for a fourth or subsequent offense.
The Risks of Smartwatches and Distracted Driving
Using a smartwatch while driving increases the risk of an accident. It may only take a second to glance at a smartwatch, but a second’s inattention may be all it takes for a crash to happen. A car accident can result in a lifetime of serious consequences, such as severe or even fatal injuries, medical bills, lost wages, and other losses.