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A New Distracted Driving Concern: Smartwatches

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Most people are aware that when they are behind the wheel, smartphones are distracting. Safety experts urge drivers to put the phones away while driving, and laws require drivers to use only hands-free devices.

There’s another fairly new gadget on the market, though, that is causing concern: the smartwatch. Technology enthusiasts claim that it qualifies as a “hands-free” device, but safety experts say that it’s just as distracting as a smartphone, and in some cases, even more so.

In fact, one study by the U.K. Transport Research Laboratory found that smartwatches were far more distracting than smartphones.

Using a Smartwatch More Distracting than Using a Smartphone

For the study, researchers measured driver reaction times and their ability to perceive hazards against a number of in-car distractions. These included sending a text message on a phone, making and receiving phone calls, reading a text message on a smartwatch, and surfing social media. They then compared the reaction times to those of a driver conducting a casual conversation with a passenger.

Results showed that it took 2.52 seconds to react to a hazard while reading a text message on a watch—nearly three times longer than it took to react to the same hazard while talking to a passenger. Reaction times were actually shorter with other distracting activities, including answering a text on a smartphone. The only activity that caused a longer delay was using a phone to surf social media sites.

The smartwatch didn’t fare well in follow-up experiments, either, causing the driver to veer out of his lane and take evasive action to avoid a collision more often than when talking to a passenger or using a handheld mobile phone.

Smartwatches Are Not Hands-Free Devices

Though smartwatches may seem to be handier than smartphones, and more easily accessible, they require the driver to tap the screen, and to use both hands to operate it—one to hold it up, and the other to tap the screen. The screen itself is also very small, which requires the driver to take his eyes completely off the road to view it clearly.

The other concern is that unlike a smartphone, which can be placed in a case or cup-holder and ignored, a watch is not put aside. When it beeps, vibrates, or lights up, it is more likely to distract a driver simply because of its proximity to the body.

Will There Be New Laws Restricting Smartwatch Use?

Currently, there are no laws specifically addressing the use of smartwatches while behind the wheel. Some of that is because smartwatches haven’t been that prevalent on the market until recently, but that is starting to change. The smartwatch is the fastest growing of all wearable technology, and new models are often released on the market.

Even if laws are passed restricting the use of these gadgets, they may be hard to enforce. While policeman can issue a citation when they see a phone in a driver’s hand, a watch belongs on a wrist, and a driver cannot be ticketed for wearing one.

In the case of an accident, however, authorities are allowed to take devices that may be deemed to have been factors in a crash. The user may also be held liable if it is discovered that he or she was distracted by the device at the time of the accident. In many states, it is illegal to write or send a text message while driving, no matter what device is used.