Smartwatches are a bigger distraction for drivers than mobile phones


It is estimated that 73.4 million people will use wearable technologies in the United States by 2022. Ready-to-wear technologies refer to connected and smart accessories that can be worn on different parts of the body. The most popular wearable technology is the smartwatch.

An important feature of this wearable technology is that it is easy to acquire and therefore can be used almost anywhere. This convenience and adaptability means that smartwatches are used in a variety of circumstances, including while driving a car.

However, safety while using a smart watch is an issue for users and those around them.

One in six Americans owns a smartwatch that they use at least once a month. According to the International Data Corporation, a marketing and technology research firm, smartwatches will account for 70.2% of all ready-to-wear technologies by 2022.

Distracted driving

One of the main consequences of driver distraction is decreased reaction time . It contributes to a large part of traffic accidents. Recent research has found that when drivers have conversations on their devices – whether handheld or hands-free – reaction time is slower and drivers’ ability to assess and respond to a problem decreases. . In short, it is dangerous to use a smart device while driving.

Transport Canada refers to this situation as distracted driving  : “Distracted driving occurs when the driver’s attention is diverted from driving because he is focused on something else. ”

When a driver is distracted, his performance as well as his perception of road conditions are not optimal. Distracted drivers are slower to become aware of safety concerns and figure out how to resolve the problem. In many cases, in a dangerous situation, they cannot physically react as quickly.

This reduces the ability of a distracted driver to operate a vehicle safely. A driver may not even be aware of a problem, or even have been distracted. In this situation, he therefore fails to react sufficiently adequately and quickly to all eventualities.

Distracted driving isn’t just about problems outside of a vehicle. Transport Canada notes that distraction can take the form of text messages, talking on the phone or with passengers, eating or drinking, or using an entertainment or navigation system. Using a hands-free electronic device is four times more distracting for the driver than talking to a passenger.

Laws are not always clear

In Canada, distracted driving is responsible for 21% of fatal crashes and 27% of crashes resulting in serious injury. In the United States, in 2017 alone, 3,166 people were killed on the roads as a result of distracted driving . Over 90% of road accidents are due to human error – these accidents are preventable.

Most states in the United States have laws that prohibit distracted driving: the majority of states prohibit a driver from talking on a mobile phone or sending text messages while driving. Smartwatches are often not included in this restriction . In Quebec, the highway safety code is much clearer: “It is strictly forbidden to use a portable electronic device while driving. Simply holding it in your hand or in any other way while driving is prohibited ” .

To change laws so that the use of smartwatches is banned or restricted, and in order to change driver habits, research needs to show how these technologies distract users.

Convincing results

Our research team at Tech3lab at HEC Montreal , a laboratory specializing in the study of interactions between people and technologies, has studied the specific characteristics of smartwatches in terms of distracted driving.

We compared smartwatches to mobile phones and looked at the effects of sending text or voicemail messages on driver reactions and concentration. Our results were published in the scientific journal Accident, Analysis & Prevention .

We set up an experiment in a driving simulator that measured the driver’s responses to different types of alerts from a smart watch and a mobile phone. These distractions, including voice assistance for drivers, were compared based on the driving behavior of the participants.

Our study placed 31 drivers in one of four possible simulated driving situations. In three of the four situations, drivers received alerts on a mobile phone, smartwatch or speakerphone. Drivers had to respond vocally to these alerts. The fourth situation was slightly different: drivers received written texts by mobile phone or smart watch and had to respond using their phone to send a response.

The smartwatch generates the most distraction while driving

Our study provides insight into the levels of distraction experienced by specific driver behaviors when driving and using their smartwatches. We have found that smartwatches generate more distraction for drivers than mobile phones, while voice assistants are less distracting. Drivers’ eyes were less focused on their driving when they received written alerts on their smartwatches than on their mobile phones.

We also found that drivers’ eyes were less focused on their driving when written alerts were sent to them on a mobile phone than when they heard the alert through a loudspeaker. Additionally, drivers were more distracted by written alerts than by voice alerts.

Overall, smartwatches have a negative effect on a person’s ability to drive safely. We have also found that the safest way to send and receive alerts is by voice.

These results are important for the public and for decision-makers. Some jurisdictions consider the use of a smartwatch while driving to be distracted driving, which is illegal in most US states and Canadian provinces. But it appears that in many cases, the police can use their discretion to interpret the highway safety code. More clarity is needed on how distracted driving is defined by law, in other words, how it applies to smartwatches and their use by drivers.

We believe that lives can be saved by educating the public about the risks of using a smartwatch while driving. Safety messages can be emphasized through education in schools, social media, traditional media, marketing, safety alerts, and law enforcement.

Author Bios: Pierre-Majorique Leger is NSERC-Prompt Industrial Research Chair in User Experience and Full Professor of IT and Sylvain Senecal is Professor of Marketing and RBC Financial Group Chair of E-Commerce both at HEC Montréal