July 7, 2021

Are Smartwatches Distracting to Drivers?

Distracted Driver Looking at His Smart Watch

Wearable technology, such as smartwatches, are becoming more common and more disruptive to people’s attention. Although these devices have the potential to make people more productive and tuned-in, they also run the risk of creating dangerous distractions, especially for drivers. Distracted driving is a leading cause of car accidents.

What are Wearable Smart devices?

Wearable smart devices include fitness trackers and even smart clothing, but the most commonly used wearable is the smartwatch. In fact, technology marketing and research firm International Data Corporation reports that by 2022, approximately 70.2 percent of all wearable technology will be smartwatches.

Smartwatches, such as Apple’s iWatch and other versions, can connect to a smartphone and allow wireless access to texts, calendars, email messages, news alerts, social media content, and countless other applications.

How Common are Wearable Smart devices?

More than 70 million people use wearable smart technology at least once a month, according to research by eMarketer, an information source on consumer behavior run as a joint research effort with Business Insider Intelligence. Projections from the combined firm outline expectations that use of wearables will reach 78 million individuals by 2024, accounting for 22.8 percent of the population.

What is the Main Danger for a Driver Wearing a Smartwatch?

Distracted driving is the main concern when it comes to drivers wearing smartwatches. Receiving notifications on a smartwatch increases the propensity for a driver to engage in dangerous behavior, as this tempts the driver to remove their attention from the road in order to engage with the device.

This is similar to the dangerous driver distraction trends associated with using a smartphone. Phone-related activities that cause risks for drivers and other road users include holding a phone to the ear while driving, texting while driving, and otherwise engaging with the device when all focus should be on safely operating the vehicle. Smartphones offer many of the same types of engagement, but they are ostensibly hands-free, a problematic distinction for the driver who may see no harm in a mere glance at the watch on their wrist.

To be clear, distracted driving is defined as anything that takes a driver’s attention away from the act of driving; this includes manual, visual, or cognitive disruption. Distractions include anything that takes the driver’s hands off the wheel, eyes off the road, or mind off the action of safely operating their vehicle. Some other examples of actions drivers perform while behind the wheel that can be considered distracted driving are eating, applying make-up, adjusting the radio, or even having an intense conversation with a passenger.

When drivers are giving their attention to something other than the task of driving, there are negative consequences for a driver’s ability to recognize roadway danger and to react in time when a dangerous situation does arise.

What Smartwatch Functions Make Them Dangerous for Drivers?

A study by HEC Montréal Tech3Lab was published in Accident Analysis & Prevention. The laboratory studies how people use technologies. In this case, the researchers examined the qualities, features, and functions of smart technology and wearables and how those properties affected driver behaviors that led to distraction and car accidents. The study compared communication types through smartwatches and mobile phones, looking at how sending a text or voice message affects driver focus and reaction time.

The experiment involved a simulated driving scenario in which drivers received alerts, from a smartwatch, on a mobile phone’s screen, and through the phone’s speaker using voice-assist technology, while researchers observed and recorded differences in the drivers’ reactions to the differing alert-delivery methods.

For the study, 31 drivers were each seated in a driving simulator and were sent alerts as they were subjected to four possible notification-delivery scenarios. In three of the simulated driving situations, the drivers received alerts in turn through a smartwatch, mobile phone, and speaker. In those cases, the driver was told to answer the alerts using their voice. The fourth test involved an alert for a written text that appeared on the screen of a smartphone or smartwatch, and they were asked to reply to the text by typing a response using the phone.

The simulation test found that drivers are more distracted by smartwatches than mobile phones and that voice assistants were less distracting. Not surprisingly, divers were less focused on driving when written texts were involved, as their gaze was drawn away from the road in order to read the message on the phone’s screen.

The researchers found that when the messages came through a speaker, the drivers were able to remain more focused on the road than they were able to be when the speakers were not involved. The conclusion of the study indicates that the safest way for text alerts to be delivered is through voice technology that employs speaker-mode on the phone.

The most dangerous mode of delivery for phone alerts, according to this study, is the use of notification through a smartwatch.

Are There Laws Addressing Smartwatches and Other Wearables?

Most states have laws that make distracted driving illegal, such as restrictions against engaging in phone calls or texting while driving. Some jurisdictions make exceptions for hands-free applications, but there are few, if any, restrictions that specifically regulate the use of smartwatches while driving.

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