As in NZ, it's illegal in Britain to use a handheld phone while driving. Euan Doig investigates where British law stands on smartwatches
Smartphones already rule our world, and with the forthcoming appearance of the Apple Watch it looks like smartwatches are about to make communicating even handier.
They’ll mean you don’t have to actually pick up your phone to answer calls, read texts or even tweet. You’ll be able to communicate with the world using just a flick of the wrist while you’re cooking ... and while you’re driving.
There’s the rub. How will British road laws cope with wearable technology?
Does this mean that every time you raise your wrist to look at the time on your smartwatch while driving, you’re breaking the law? Will the law require you to take off your watch every time you get into the driver’s seat?
The law specifically forbids you from picking up or holding your mobile phone when the car is running. The problem arises when that technology is wrapped around your wrist, because, in essence, you aren’t holding it.
The Department for Transport, however, considers that smartwatches are covered by the laws that already make holding a mobile phone while driving illegal, and says: “Drivers must give their full attention to the road, which is why it has been illegal since the 1980s to view a screen while driving a motor vehicle unless that screen is displaying driving information. There are no plans to change this.”
So, if you get caught looking at a text on your watch, or being distracted by the vibrating feedback, you’ll face the standard fine. The issue is that it will l be virtually impossible to enforce and could cause all manner of headaches for a traffic police force that’s already understaffed.
It’s a tragedy that the easiest way for the police to get a conviction will be if someone is involved in an incident, and an interrogation of the watch shows that they were using it at the (pardon the pun) time. In that case, they could face charges of dangerous or careless driving.
The Transport Research Laboratory has undertaken many studies on driver distraction and has proved that using a smartphone can slow a driver’s reactions by as much as two and a half seconds.
However, Professor Andrew Parkes, chief scientist at the laboratory, reckons there’s a bigger problem.
“The issue isn’t so much that people’s reaction times are much slower, it’s that people who are distracted by smartphones completely miss entire events, so don’t react to what’s happening outside the car at all.
“People using smartphones on the road also have much greater trouble keeping their car in one lane. This is a problem with all nomadic technology in cars, such as smartphones and satellite-navigation systems, and smartwatches will only make this worse.
“These watches have very small screens which take longer for the eye and brain to adjust to. Add in the fact that people will typically hold up a watch in front of their face and you have the potential for drivers to be very distracted indeed.”
Parkes also says research shows that people are now actually texting less while driving and are instead using their phones to access social media websites, such as Facebook and Twitter, which further increases the level and frequency of distraction.
However, there’s a way to get around at least part of the problem. Manufacturers must simply make sure that if a mobile phone is linked to a car’s Bluetooth system, or even a Bluetooth headset, the connection with the attendant smartwatch is automatically broken. Every time you get into your car your smartwatch will become simply a watch.
In one cheap and easy stroke temptation will disappear. The risk of accidents is lessened and the police won’t be looking for people doing modern-day Knight Rider impressions.