Will the new Apple Watch make distracted driving worse?

apple watch distracted driving

With drivers already facing multiple distractions from mobile devices, some safety experts worry that the new Apple Watch will make it even more difficult for people to keep their eyes -- and minds -- on the road.

Deb Trombley, a senior program manager who works on distracted driving issues for the National Safety Council, notes that the Apple Watch has many of the same capabilities as a smartphone.

However, the Apple Watch is even more accessible.

This is a problem, Trombley says, because to avoid the temptation of using or looking at your cellphone while driving, you just put it away.

However, the Apple Watch will live on your wrist and be constantly in sight. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 3,328 people were killed and 421,000 people were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2012, the latest data available.  

How does the Apple Watch work?

The Apple Watch will be available to U.S. consumers April 24. In addition to telling time, the device will enable the wearer to perform numerous tasks.

Among other things, you can answer phone calls, send messages, open Internet apps, select music, look at photos, answer email, and consult your personal calendar. 

Trombley says anything that takes your mind off the task of driving is an unnecessary distraction.

In a June 2013 report, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety (AAA) reported that cognitive distraction occurs when a driver's attention is withdrawn from the processing of information needed for the safe operation of a car.   

In September, the British Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) warned drivers that the Apple Watch has the potential to be as distracting as any other mobile device.

The institute says that unlike hands-free mobile devices, the watch will require drivers to use both hands "impacting speed, lane position and time spent looking at the road."

For example, if you’re wearing an Apple Watch on your left hand while driving and get a text message, you must raise your left wrist to view the message and use your right hand to scroll through the message.

How to avoid distracted driving while wearing an Apple Watch

One of the concerns is that wearers of the Apple Watch won't be able to resist answering calls or messages while they are driving, Trombley says.

"There is something compulsive about it when you hear a message coming in," she says. "What level of willpower would it take to avoid looking at it or answering it?”

AAA says drivers should avoid using electronic gadgets that tend to take their attention off the highway. Trombley says the best way to do this is to turn them off while you're driving.

If you own an Apple Watch, "don't wear it while you're driving," she says.

The Apple Watch does come with some features that may help you use your phone without taking your eyes off the road.

For example, you can make calls with voice commands through the Siri app, which uses voice-recognition technology.

To avoid distractions while driving, you can switch on your Apple Watch's airplane mode to avoid receiving texts or phone calls.

Kara Macek, a spokeswoman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, says the Apple Watch definitely is a driver-safety concern.

"Without a doubt, we know that you need to keep your eyes on the road and your hands on the wheel," she says. "We’re not opposed to technology, but it always raises concerns whenever you introduce potential distractions into a vehicle."

Karl Newman, president of the NW Insurance Council trade group in Seattle, agrees: "Any distraction while driving creates hazards for both the driver and the driver's passengers.”

How to cope with distractions

Russ Rader, spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says there's little doubt that electronic devices, such as cellphones and Apple Watches, can be distracting to drivers. 

However, the problem of distracted driving has many causes. Common distractions cited by Distraction.gov, the federal government's website on distracted driving, include eating, drinking, talking, reading maps and personal grooming.

Because driver distractions are inevitable, Rader says the best way to reduce the number of traffic accidents is for automakers to continue developing crash-avoidance technology.

"Now we have vehicles that can monitor the road ahead and warn drivers if there’s an obstacle, and in some cases intervene by braking the vehicle to avoid the crash," he says.

New laws to limit distracted driving

Macek holds that lawmakers need to pass laws that limit the use of distracting activities, including use of the Apple Watch, for such activities as such as texting, using cellphones and surfing the Internet.

In April, Consumer Reports magazine reported that are no distracted driving laws in the U.S. that address Apple Watch use in motor vehicles. Macek says this will change, as Apple Watches come into use.

New technology is creating distracting gadgets faster than lawmakers can react, but state legislatures eventually will recognize the need for new laws to protect drivers, she adds.

"There is a time and place for staying in touch, and it's not while you're driving," Macek says. 

Free Insurance Quotes