By Mark Richardson
Jeffrey Macesin says he was changing the music playing through his car speakers when the Montreal police officer pulled him over and charged him with distracted driving.
The music was coming from his iPhone and wired into the car’s stereo, but the phone was tucked away in his bag, out of sight. In fact, he was using his Apple Watch to change the track, another potential new distraction in a world increasingly crowded with them.
Macesin says he was astonished by the ticket, which carries a $120 fine in Quebec and four demerit points.
“I understand (the officer’s) point of view,” he told CTV in May, “but the fact is, he thought I was using my phone and I wasn’t using my phone – I was using my watch. I tried explaining this to the guy and he just ignored me. I told him I’d see him in court.”
I sent Macesin numerous requests for a chat but he didn’t respond – maybe his lawyer told him to keep quiet. But he acknowledged in outtakes to CTV that his left hand was on the wheel – the same arm that wears his new Apple Watch – and he was tapping on the watch dial with his right hand to change tracks when the officer saw him from an overpass. The Apple Watch was connected wirelessly to his iPhone and controlling its functions.
The actual charge is that he “drove a road vehicle using a hand-held device equipped with a telephone function,” and his argument against it, he said, is that a watch is not “hand-held” – it’s worn on the wrist. “That’s where it gets really controversial,” he said to CTV. “Is it? Is it not? But I think this needs to be talked about.”
And it does. Personally, I would say this is just semantics – an attempt to excuse yet another form of distracted driving. I think it’s a manipulation of language to try to get around the law.
However, what really is the difference between tapping on a Next Track arrow stuck to your wrist, and tapping on the same arrow on a car’s central display touchscreen? Not much, really.
Macesin’s caught in a blurry part of the law that nobody really understands just yet.
“The technology’s evolving much faster than the law is,” says Shelina Lalji, president of Pointts, the largest independent paralegal firm in Canada. Pointts has offices in Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario, and Lalji says she’s not aware of any charges being laid in those provinces for using wearable technology while driving – yet.
Smart watches are a new thing and relatively few drivers wear one, but they’re only going to become more popular. The iPhone itself is only eight years old, don’t forget. In Ontario, police say they’ve already begun issuing roadside warnings to drivers seen using smart watches behind the wheel, though they’ve not yet laid any charges.
“We’ve tried to educate people and say that if they’re wearing it, they shouldn’t be engaging in any activity that might be distracting in nature,” says Sgt. Peter Leon of the Ontario Provincial Police.
“Anything that can take your eyes off the road, where they need to be, can serve as a distraction… If your wrist is going off because you’re getting an e-mail – these are things that take people’s attention away from where they need to be.”
In Nova Scotia, Sgt. Alain LeBlanc of the RCMP agrees, but says there’s nothing in the provincial law to prohibit the use of a smart watch while driving. “I think it’s terrible that we have all these gadgets now,” he says.
Across Canada, distracted driving is largely considered the leading cause of death on the roads.
And a smart watch can be even more dangerous to use while driving than a smart phone. “These watches have very small screens, which take longer for the eye and brain to adjust to,” said Prof. Andrew Parkes, chief scientist at Britain’s Transport Research Laboratory, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph this spring.
“Add in the fact that people will typically hold up a watch in front of their face when they want to read it and you have the potential for drivers to be very distracted indeed.”
Also, it’s more difficult for police to prove use in court of a smart watch than a phone. After all, most people would agree it’s fine to glance at your watch while driving to check the time – even though practically all automobiles have easily visible clocks.
Some provinces already have effective legislation against using smart watches while driving. In British Columbia, the Provincial Motor Vehicle Act states clearly that “a person must not use an electronic device while driving or operating a motor vehicle on a highway,” without limiting it to something “hand-held.”
Or perhaps we should look east across the Atlantic to Britain – the country that has prosecuted drivers for eating apples and Kit Kats behind the wheel. There, the law states simply that it’s illegal to view a screen while driving, unless the screen is displaying driving information. Presumably, there’s some leniency for changing radio stations, which is where Mr. Macesin in Montreal comes back to the debate. He got a ticket two years ago for using his phone while driving.
“I’ve learned my lesson,” he says. “I’m not going to be one of those guys who dies at a young age because of a stupid text message. There are a lot more important things in life. I figured this was not such a huge deal.”
And that’s the problem. Nobody expects to die because of a text message or a smart watch, and most drivers think it’s not such a huge deal. Except it is.
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