It’s long been established that driving while operating a mobile phone is a dangerous habit – so much so that driving while texting or calling has been banned in the UK since 2003. How effective that ban has been continues to be argued by safety experts and law enforcement, and there are regular calls for stiffer fines and harsher penalties for drivers who insist on breaking the law. To be fair, there has been a steady decline over the last few years in the number of motorists caught driving while operating their mobile devices. So the message that smartphones and driving don’t mix does seem to be getting through to the public, albeit slowly. Unfortunately, much of that progress may soon be undone by the advent of the latest craze in mobile devices – the smart-watch.

Smartwatches and Motorists

Smart-watches aren’t exactly new (wearable tech has been around now for a couple of years), but the recent release of the Apple Watch has definitely brought them into the limelight. Apple knows how to capture the public’s imagination, and their new smart watch will do a lot to promote the perceived fun and convenience of wearable tech. But it’s those very perceptions that are proving most worrisome to law enforcement and road safety experts. They worry that motorists will mistakenly assume that their new smart-watch is less of a driving distraction than a standard smartphone. After all, a smart-watch is by definition a ‘hands free’ device, with an operating system that relies predominately on voice commands. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Recent tests have shown that smart-watches, despite their so-called ‘hands free’ convenience, are actually more distracting to drivers than a hand held mobile phone.

The Latest Research

The Transport Research Laboratory in Wokingham has been conducting research into the impact of smart-watches on driver distraction, and the results may well surprise many motorists. The TRL tests demonstrated that driver reaction times were significantly slower when motorists were using a smart-watch than when they were using a smartphone or merely talking with a passenger. The tests showed that it took 2.52 seconds for a driver reading a text on a smart-watch to react to an emergency situation. The same tests showed that reading a text on a smartphone slowed the driver’s reaction time down to 1.85 seconds, while merely chatting with a passenger resulted in a reaction time of 0.9 seconds. Clearly, operating any mobile device while driving has a profound effect on reaction times, but the smart-watch is the greater culprit when it comes to distracting drivers and increasing the risk of road accidents.

Reacting to the Research

While driving and operating a mobile phone has been banned for more than a decade, there are currently no laws addressing wearable tech and motorway safety. With the release of the TRL report road safety advocates are lobbying the Department of Transport to introduce similar bans on driving while operating a smart-watch. Unfortunately, as is often the case, legislation tends to be slow when it comes to catching up with technology, and it may be some time before the government and law enforcement can fully come to grips with wearable tech and its impact on motorway safety.

The last few years have seen a decline in the number of mobile phone related accidents, which is definitely good news for motorists across the country. However, road safety advocates and law enforcement are now worried that the adoption of smart-watches may lead to a new spike in those statistics as drivers make the dangerous mistake of assuming that so-called ‘hands free’ devices are in some way safer than standard smartphones. They are calling for new laws to address the emerging technology, as well as stricter penalties for offenders and more comprehensive tools with which to catch them.