Is It Illegal to Use the Apple Watch While Driving?


In con­junc­tion with the typ­i­cal Inter­net feed­ing fren­zy that goes hand in hand with the announce­ment of each new iPhone, Apple has been cit­ed in count­less head­lines recent­ly after its debut of its new Apple Watch on Sep­tem­ber 9. The so-called “smart­watch” is far from an indus­try first – Sam­sung, Motoro­la and Peb­ble all have mod­els on the mar­ket, and who can for­get 2003’s Fos­sil Wrist PDA? – but as per usu­al, Apple’s entry is gar­ner­ing more than its fair share of media atten­tion.

The Apple Watch (“iWatch” to many) has also raised inter­est of a more omi­nous sort from cer­tain reg­u­la­to­ry bod­ies. Last week, mul­ti­ple auto­mo­tive out­lets in the Unit­ed King­dom ran sto­ries quot­ing offi­cials from that country’s Depart­ment for Trans­port as say­ing that use of an iWatch while dri­ving would car­ry the same penal­ty as use of a mobile phone. For the Brits, then, get­ting nabbed check­ing an alert on one’s wrist might mean the same 100-pound fine (about $160) that was instat­ed last August.

If that seems like a strong response to a prod­uct that won’t even hit the mar­ket until next year, UK road safe­ty research body the Insti­tute of Advanced Motorists would like to have a word. In a recent release, the IAM unfa­vor­ably com­pares the use of a smart­watch while dri­ving to its stud­ies of smart­phone use, sug­gest­ing that such watch­es might demand two-hand­ed use by dri­vers with “con­stant alerts” requir­ing “reg­u­lar atten­tion” from those behind the wheel.

Now, as right-hand steer­ing wheels will tell you, the British and we Amer­i­cans don’t always see eye-to-eye on traf­fic code. With the excep­tion of a few chal­lenges to the legal­i­ty of dri­ving with Google Glass, dis­tract­ed dri­ving laws in the US haven’t seemed to move past the par­a­digms of smart­phones, hands-free head­sets and tex­ting. com­piles a list of the dis­tract­ed dri­ving laws from state to state in the US, which real­ly run the gamut from no bans at all (Mon­tana), to pri­ma­ry offens­es for the use of hand­held phones, all tex­ting, and any cell phone use what­so­ev­er for bus dri­vers (Cal­i­for­nia).

Most states have some laws on the books regard­ing tex­ting while dri­ving, how­ev­er, as its con­sump­tion of visu­al, man­u­al and cog­ni­tive atten­tion from the dri­ver is the most neg­a­tive­ly engag­ing.

Impor­tant­ly, a lot of dis­tract­ed dri­ving laws also use the term “hand­held” in their pro­hi­bi­tions. A smart­watch might not require the use of your hand any more than a tra­di­tion­al watch does, though many (Apple Watch includ­ed) will use touch con­trols for some fea­tures. It’s log­i­cal that some of the “hand­held” laws might tran­si­tion to smart­watch use, though it’s still pret­ty dif­fi­cult to under­stand how these bans might be enforced with any con­sis­ten­cy.

We reached out to rep­re­sen­ta­tives at the US Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion and oth­ers for com­ment, and have yet to get a state­ment, but the truth seems to be that this is an area that is still just being con­sid­ered for study. As ever, the legal code will trail tech­nol­o­gy despite the best efforts of all involved. One thing seems pret­ty clear even now, though – we’re all bet­ter dri­vers with both hands on the steer­ing wheel.



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