In many states, using a cellphone while driving is a juridical no-no. But so might be using your smartwatch. That’s what one Reddit user learned in Lombard, Illinois, when he was cited by a police officer for using a Moto 360 to control music from his paired smartphone.
“I tried to tell him my phone was in my pocket and I was using [it] hands free […] [but] he basically yelled at me and called me a liar,” nin9creative recounted in a post yesterday.
Illinois has exceptions to its prohibition on handheld phones while driving, much like the other 14 states with nearly identical laws; interacting with “hands-free devices” is perfectly legal. But just what constitutes a “hands-free device” is at issue. “Speakerphones, bluetooth [sic], and headsets” meet the definition, according to the draft passed in January of this year, but wearables escape mention.
It may very well be an instance of legislation trailing behind an industry – consumer electronics – which moves at light speed. Last year, a Southern California resident was ticketed under a state law which prohibits the operation of video-displaying devices while driving. Its intention was to deter people from watching dashboard-mounted TVs, a factor the commissioner took into account in dismissing the charge.
That’s not to say state legislatures aren’t trying to draft clarifications. Maryland, Illinois, New York, Delaware, New Jersey, West Virginia, and Wyoming are contemplating amendments to their respective distracted driving statutes which specifically address smartwatches and heads-up displays. Some may model regulations on the the UK law passed last August, which effectively prohibits the use of any distracting electronics while driving (following the announcement of the Apple Watch, officials reiterated that smartwatches are applicable under the ban.)
Some, like UX Lead and Manager at Google, Greg Rosenberg, argue their ergonomics and ease of use have the potential to make wearables quite distracting in the car. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board implied as much in September, when it called for a nationwide ban on the use of all “non-essential” electronic devices while driving. And preliminary studies have shown that wearables are no less dangerous to use than handheld phones.
Others feel differently, though. “With [Google] Glass giving me directions I didn’t have to take my eyes off the road, ever,” Taylor Hatmaker, an editor at the Daily Dot, was quoted as saying in a story about the safety of heads-up displays. “It completely does away with the temptation to glance over away from the road when you hear a notification, since it brings that information right to you without interrupting your concentration.
Until the specifics can be hashed out legislatively, the approach isn’t likely to be consistent. Enforcement is at the discretion of individual officers, some of whom undoubtedly have no knowledge of wearables.
What does that mean for wearables while driving? In the interim, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution.