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Smartwatches Do Almost Everything—Except Make You Drive Better

One California lawyer thinks that the tech companies that make them should spend a whole lot of money reminding drivers of that fact.
(Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

(Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

Apple’s smartwatch has yet to hit the wrists of the 1.4 million customers who have pre-ordered the new gadget during the first week of sales, but the tech company has already been hit with a lawsuit in the Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Los Angeles attorney Stephen Joseph filed a suit against Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, and Google, the Los Angeles Times reports, which would force the companies to fund a $1 billion public awareness campaign about the dangers of driving while doing whatever it is that smartwatches do. (Fun fact: Joseph is perhaps best known as the lawyer who led the national campaign to ban trans fats, and the guy representing the plastic bag industry in its fight against city-wide bans.)

Distracted driving is a major issue. Every day in the United States, nine people are killed and 1,153 more are injured in crashes that involve distracted drivers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2011, distracted drivers were behind nearly one in five crashes that resulted in injuries. And while cell phone use on the road is banned or limited in many states, there is no legislation preventing the use of smartwatches behind the wheel.

But are smartwatches as dangerous as smartphones for drivers? And would a public awareness campaign be a billion dollars well spent?

For many of us, our phones are the first thing we check in the morning and the last thing we see before we go to bed. Up to 60 percent of college students in the U.S. confess to being addicted to their phones, and some of them even admit to feeling agitated when its out of reach, according to a 2014 study from researchers at Baylor University. One 2011 study found that mobile devices inspire what the authors called a “checking habit.” A major driver of cell phone addiction may be the desire to connect socially, according to a 2013 study of college-age users.

Every day in the United States, nine people are killed and 1,153 more are injured in crashes that involve distracted drivers.

And the urge to check our phones doesn’t subside once we get on the road, according to the study authors, who outlined the progression from benign cell phone ownership to dependence. "Owning a cell-phone for purposes of safety, for instance, eventually becomes secondary to sending and receiving text messages or visiting online social networking sites," the authors wrote, "eventually, the cell-phone user may engage in increasingly dangerous behaviors such as texting while driving." In fact, a 2012 survey of college students found that the same individuals who habitually check their phones were more likely to report texting while driving.

If smartwatches prove as addictive as their mobile cousins, as the lawsuit alleges, they could be even more dangerous than cell phones. Smartwatches have only been on the market for a short time, so the research is limited, but last month, Wareable reported on a preliminary study from the United Kingdom’s Transport Research Laboratory:

Here's what we know. TRL states this was not a full-scale study and it has not released any information about which smartwatch was used in the tests. It wasn't an Apple Watch as reported. The average driver response time after using a smartwatch was 2.52 seconds, higher than the 1.85 seconds after using a smartphone and a lot higher than the 0.9 seconds after talking to a passenger.

In other words, it takes longer for drivers to re-focus on driving after checking their smartwatches than their smartphones, and every second counts when you're speeding along a road in a 3,000-pound metal box.

So how have anti-texting and driving campaigns fared? Research shows that drivers know operating cell phones and automobiles simultaneously is dangerous; in national surveys, as many as 94 percent of drivers agree texting while driving should be illegal. But, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s David Strickland said in a press release, “Many drivers see distracted driving as risky when other drivers do it, but do not recognize how their own driving deteriorates.” The latest data show that while drivers are likely well aware of the dangers, right now (if you’re reading this during daylight hours), roughly 660,000 people are using their cell phones on the road—a number that hasn’t changed much since at least 2010. And laws prohibiting texting and driving don’t make much of a difference. A 2011 survey of 7,833 high schoolers found that 39 percent of teens continued to text and drive in states with texting restrictions, only five percent fewer than teens in states without such laws.

New technologies will probably always continue to capture our collective attention. It seems that reminding drivers of the danger inherent to the smartwatch will likely do as much good as reminding drivers that smartphones can be dangerous. But if we can legislate our way to safer roads, there's a potential technological solution that would not only give us safer roads, but could also make transportation cheaper and more efficient as well: As Susie Cagle wrote for Pacific Standard last month, autonomous buses will be the great transportation innovation of the future.