Distracted driving laws not clear on smart watches
The new Apple Watch is shown during a new product release on Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014, in Cupertino, Calif. (AP /Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Joshua Freeman, CP24.com
Published Thursday, September 11, 2014 12:59PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, September 11, 2014 2:13PM EDT
When it comes to the rules about distracted driving and smart watches in Ontario, the grey Apple Watch unveiled earlier this week appears to be a perfect colour match with the law.
Apple unveiled the new device Tuesday. Due out early next year, it features a touch screen and scrolling crown that allows people to read text messages, emails and even answer phone calls from their wrist.
While there’s no on-screen keyboard, you can draw messages on the watch and use a “walkie talkie” feature to speak with people.
Android, Samsung and Motorola have also released smart watches with many similar features over the last year or so.
But unlike the crisp screen on the Apple Watch, police say the rules about using one behind the wheel are not quite clear.
“The actual offense of distracted driving speaks specifically to holding a handheld device,” OPP Sgt. Kerry Schmidt told cp24.com Thursday. “Because it’s not necessarily being hand held, by definition it would probably be a tough thing to proceed on.”
In 2009, the province instituted a ban on using handheld devices. The law also makes it illegal to view display screens that aren’t related to driving.
Hands-free devices are still allowed, however and are defined by the Ministry of Transportation as technology that is “not held during use” and which the driver is “not physically interacting with or manipulating.”
Motorists caught violating the law face a fine of around $280 after court fees.
If smart watches catch on in a big way, Schmidt said police and Queen’s Park might be forced to take a closer look at modifying the existing laws to cover smart watches.
Speaking to cp24.com Thursday Ontario Safety League president Brian Patterson said he questions whether the new devices are that different from phones.
“If I’m reading a text off my device, I’m not engaged in driving,” Patterson said. “Our position would be, as with the distracted issues, is how it interacts with the driver and does it meet those fundamental distraction issues. Simply calling it a watch I’m not sure completely removes it from the legislation.”
Patterson said the OSL is already planning to test the new devices in a simulator to see how much of a distraction they pose to drivers.
In the meantime though, Schmidt cautioned that police could still charge someone with careless driving for using one of the devices on the road – a charge that carries an even heftier fine ($490) than distracted driving.
And aside from possible charges, Schmidt said safe driving should be motivation enough for people to steer clear of distractions while driving.
“Our message to everybody is that you need to focus on the road and it’s something that we want to communicate to everybody, not just the drivers but the passengers,” Schmidt said.
Ontario Provincial Police have laid more than 11,500 charges so far this year in connection with people using handheld devices while driving.
Just last week police issued a press release urging drivers to heed the province’s distracted driving legislation. Police also said distracted driving was a factor in two fatal collisions over the Labour Day long weekend.
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