Driver distractions existed long before the advent of personal electronic devices. However, the development of technology has only enhanced the problem. Recently, smartwatches have become the latest digital device destined to become a dangerous distraction for drivers. While smartwatches may not divert a driver’s attention to the same degree as a smartphone, nonetheless, they increase the chances that a driver may become distracted behind the wheel. Some smartwatch functions are interactive, which increases the opportunity for drivers to become distracted and cause an accident. As with other personal electronic devices, it will take a while for law enforcement authorities to recognize when a driver is distracted by a smartwatch. Officers will require investigative experience and training to determine when smartwatch-use contributed to an accident.
What Does a Smartwatch Do?Smartwatches are watches that sync with your other electronic devices. They are part of a growing market of digital devices that provide consumers with the hands-free operation of multiple devices. The user straps a smartwatch to their wrist like a traditional wristwatch. However, the smartwatch provides features that traditional watches do not. Like smartphones and tablets, smartwatches are equipped with a touch screen that the wearer uses to access apps and data. Smartwatches are marketed to consumers as a user-friendly device enabling hands free use of other devices. The nature of the design encourages multitasking while driving or performing other activities. Depending on the smartwatch you choose, the available functions will vary. Wearers may track their fitness and health, answer voicemail messages, play music, receive reminders, control smart home features, and access GPS functions. Some smartwatches pair with smartphones via Bluetooth to enhance their functionality. Newer models have SIM card capability that allows them to operate as a phone. All smartwatches have the potential to induce distracted driving behaviors. The National Safety Council identifies driver distractions as anything that diverts a driver’seyes from the road, hands from the wheel, or mind away from driving.
Distracted Driving and Digital DevicesThe National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) defines distracted driving as, “...the inattention that occurs when drivers divert their attention away from the driving task to focus on another activity...” This occurs when an internal or external distraction affects a driver’s performance either visually, manually or cognitively. Because of the number of texting-related accidents, law enforcement authorities often use the terms distracted driving and texting while driving interchangeably. Statistics reported by the NHTSA reveal that, across the nation, 2,841 people lost their lives in distracted driving accidents during 2018. The fatalities account for drivers, passengers, bicyclists, and pedestrians.
Distracted Driving Accidents in VirginiaThe Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles also tracks statewide distracted driving crashes. As with NHTSA’s national statistics, they have not yet documented any accidents specifically related to smartwatch use. Virginia’s annual Crash Facts report lists 24,350 distracted driver-involved crashes with these additional details:
- Fatalities in 126 accidents.
- Injuries sustained in 13,733 accidents.
- Distracted driving in combination with speeding caused 41 fatalities.
- Distracted driving in combination with alcohol consumption caused 34 fatalities.
- Property damage only crashes accounted for 15,608 accidents.
- Top distractions included eyes away from the road, observing a roadside incident, and texting or using a cellphone.
Law Enforcement Authorities Don’t Document Smartwatch-Related CrashesLaw enforcement and safety agencies have not yet included smartwatches in national or statewide distracted driving statistics. However, that does not confirm that they have not contributed to any accidents. Just as they did with smartphones, accident investigators must develop the criteria to identify and document smartwatch-distracted driving crashes. To become more effective in prosecuting smartphone-related cases, law enforcement officials across the country are updating their investigative procedures and training. The NHTSA’s report “Investigation and Prosecution of Distracted Driving Cases,“ explains how authorities found new ways to detect electronic device use before the distraction caused an accident. Authorities analyze:
- Near miss accidents
- Failure to maintain lane control
- Slow response to signals
- Inconsistent speed
- Intermittent looking up and down
- Nighttime glow in the car
- Holding their hand to their ear
- Negative sobriety test: A distracted driver often operates their vehicle in ways similar to a drunk driver. Officers often suspect distracted driving when a driver passes a field sobriety test or tests negative for alcohol or substance abuse.
- Consent to search: After obtaining permission to look at a driver’s phone at the scene, investigators often gather digital evidence of device use.
- Electronic data: Data obtained by a cell service provider can sometimes provide a record of internet use or texting while driving.
- Recipient evidence: People who received a driver’s electronic communication before an accident sometimes become witnesses.