Can I get charged with distracted driving if I'm using an Apple Watch? – Mike, Toronto
Smartwatches lead to dumb driving, but whether you'll get charged isn't clear. It depends on where you are and what you're doing on the watch.
"It could be considered careless driving in Ontario, but right now the specific distracted driving legislation only speaks to the holding of a hand-held communication device," wrote OPP Sgt. Kerry Schmidt in an e-mail. "Because you are wearing it, this would be difficult to get a conviction in court."
Ontario's law only covers hand-held electronic devices. It doesn't address other kinds of distracted driving, like digging through a bag or spilling a coffee. But, if you're caught driving unsafely because of any distraction, you could be charged with careless driving.
Ontario's Ministry of Transportation (MTO) says it's up to police to decide if you'll be charged. It also says it can't give legal advice. But, it does say that sections 78 and 78.1 of the Highway Traffic Act ban texting, reading texts or e-mails, viewing images and swiping and scrolling on a smartwatch while driving – even though the law doesn't specifically mention smartwatches.
"Some features available on the device are permitted (GPS navigation) under the province's distracted driving provisions," wrote MTO spokesman Ajay Woozageer.
Globe Drive asked each province if their laws include smartwatches – none mention the new device specifically.
British Columbia and Alberta say smartwatches are considered to be electronic communication devices under their existing laws and can't be used while driving. Saskatchewan says smartwatches are not counted as hand-held communication devices under its law– but you could still be charged with driving without due care and attention if you're driving unsafely while using one. Nova Scotia says it bans texting on any communications device.
The Apple Watch vibrates whenever you get an alert.
"If you're tapped on the shoulder, your instinct is to turn around – if your wrist is vibrating, your natural instinct will be to look at it," says Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, a U.S. watchdog. "Your eyes could be off the road for many seconds as you read, process the notification and then respond to it – taking your eyes off the road and mind off the drive is a recipe for disaster."
The watch doesn't let you type text messages or e-mails, but you can dictate replies. That dictation could be permissible under laws that allow hands-free use.
Hersman says a study by the Transport Research Laboratory in Britain found drivers using smartwatches took nearly one full second longer to respond to a hazard than drivers using a smartphone. And phones already make drivers four times more likely to get into a crash.
"To avoid potential distraction, drivers should remove smartwatches or turn them off," Hersman says. "There is no safe way to use any kind of portable electronic device , hand-held or hands-free, while driving – this includes in-vehicle systems that allow for hands-free dictation."
And if you're just checking the time?
"There is no law against glancing at your watch to check the time," wrote Canadian Automobile Association spokesperson Kristine D'Arbelles in an e-mail. "Engaging with the technology on the other hand … should be avoided, as it is just like engaging with the technology on your smartphone and can be extremely distracting and dangerous."
Even if all distracted driving laws did include smartphones, they'd be difficult to enforce.
"There is no breathalyzer for distracted driving," D'Arbelles wrote. "And we don't have laws that permit police officers to search your phone or device to prove you were distracted while behind the wheel – which makes it difficult for police to charge an individual for 'glancing at a device.'"
Porsche, Tesla and BMW have launched apps for the Apple Watch. BMW's iRemote lets an i3 or i8 owner remotely check on the state of the battery, see if doors are locked and turn on the air conditioner.
Could the watch app could be used by a driver on the road?
"The key word here is 'remotely,'" wrote BMW spokesman Rob Dexter in an e-mail. "If the vehicle was actually being driven, the BMW i Remote features would effectively be redundant."
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