Do distracted driving laws cover smartwatches?

Checking your phone at the wheel is distracted driving. What about checking your smartwatch? The answer isn't so clear.

Is using a smartwatch behind the wheel a ticketable offence under the country's distracted driving laws?

It's up to the police to decide, says Ontario's Transportation Ministry.

We're not sure yet, says a spokesman for Ontario's provincial police force.

Although numerous smartwatches have hit the market in the last couple of years, it's expected Apple's simply named Watch will really kick start interest in the devices when it's released in early 2015.

That delay buys authorities some time to figure out whether current distracted driving legislation already covers the new class of devices.

"There's nothing illegal about looking at your watch to see what time it is, but if you're consumed by the functions of the watch [that's different]," says OPP Sgt. Kerry Schmidt.

Each province has penalties in place for drivers caught distracted by one of their screens, with most legislation
specifically outlawing the use of "hand-held" phones while driving, but allowing exceptions for "hands-free" devices.

Should a smartwatch be considered hands-free if it can be controlled by voice, or will laws need to be updated so they don't specifically refer to hand-held devices?

"The actual definition of distracted driving (in Ontario) is driving with a hand-held communication device, so I think it would be somewhat difficult for the courts to accept (a smartwatch) was hand-held, (since) it's strapped to your wrist," says Schmidt.

"Whether or not (drivers) are holding it, that's up to the judgment of the justice of the peace. This is going to take some time to really establish how we move forward and get some advice from prosecution lawyers as well."

Ticket will come down to police interpretation

The Canadian Press attempted to poll all the provincial transportation ministries about the emerging issue but received few clear answers. Quebec indicated it is currently reviewing its distracted driving law, some provinces responded with vague statements that did not directly answer questions, and most did not reply at all.

A spokesman for Ontario's transportation minister, Steven Del Duca, said in an email that police will have to assess how to interpret the law currently on the books.

"The new Apple Watch is a multi-purpose device. Some features available on the device may be permitted under the province's distracted driving provisions, while others would not be. In situations where the distracted driving law does not apply, anyone who chooses to put others at risk by driving while distracted can still be charged with careless driving," wrote Patrick Searle.

"Police interpret and enforce the Highway Traffic Act. It's up to police to determine if a driver's use of any electronic device while driving or stopped warrants any charge(s) being laid."

The Canadian Automobile Association supports distracting driving legislation but hasn't yet taken a position on how smartwatches should be treated under the law, says spokesman Ian Jack.

"Generally speaking we think that when people are driving they should drive, and focus on that very important thing that they're doing — not be engaged in their electronic devices, whether they're on their wrist or in their cup holder," Jack says.

"There's academic research that suggests hands-free isn't necessarily better than any other form of communication while you're on the road..… Voice activation is engaging a fair bit of your brain. And the more of your brain that's engaged on things other than paying attention to the road, the worse it is for you, safety wise."