In the New York Times, Paul Krugman reminds us that the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" dismissed Earth as a place where life-forms "are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.” That was 1979; 36 years later, we evidently still think it's a neat idea. Apple has sold 2.5 million of its new smart watches, but they're really not that smart — they are more like a remote control for your smartphone, repeating messages and texts. 

So what happens when you wear it while driving? Many jurisdictions ban the use of cellphones in the car, but will those laws expand to cover smart watches? Legislation differs, but where I live, it's against the law to 

  • operate hand-held communication and electronic entertainment devices while you're driving
  • view display screens unrelated to your driving
Is the Apple watch hand held? Not really. Is it a display screen unrelated to driving? Depends what you're looking at, because you could be staring at a map. But if your hands are on the wheel, your eyes will always be looking at that watch, and it's hard to imagine that you won't be looking at what's on the screen — and that's a problem. The Transport Research Laboratory in the U.K. found that the distraction of smart watches was three times worse than smart phones:
 A driver reading a message on a smart watch would take 2.52 seconds to react to an emergency maneuver, whereas a driver talking to another passenger would react in 0.9 seconds. It was even found to be more distracting than using a handheld mobile (1.85 second delay).
The Sunday Times tested it:

In California, a clever lawyer is suing Apple, Samsung and and other smartphone manufacturers for a cool billion dollars a year to fund a public education campaign. According to his website, 

The sole purpose of the lawsuit is to require the defendants to fund a public education campaign about the use of smartphones and smartwatches while driving, particularly smartwatches. We are asking the court to require the defendants to spend at least $1 billion annually on the campaign, which is an average of $20 million per state. The campaign would be conducted by one or more independent third parties.... It is critically important to start a public education campaign as soon as possible, because millions of Apple Watches will soon be strapped to drivers' wrists and the consequences for many people will be fatal.
Lawyer Steven Joseph may be a bit of an ambulance chaser (he previously founded another coalition to fight San Francisco's plastic bag ban) but he's on to something here. He tells CBS that the case "is not about a lawyer trying to make money; this is about saving lives."

The fact is, distracted driving is a huge problem, killing 3,154 people in 2013 and injuring 424,000. According to Distraction.Gov, "At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cellphones or manipulating electronic devices while driving." How much greater will the distraction be when it's right there on your wrist? Steven Joseph is probably correct when he writes that "the temptation to check the tiny screen immediately after receiving a notification is virtually irresistible." 

Even if it was illegal to use a smart watch in the car, how would it be enforced? The police wouldn't be able to tell. Text responses on the Apple Smartwatch can be done with Siri so they are hands-free, but is that good enough? MNN has noted that people are overconfident in how well they can do two things at once. Perhaps smart watch owners should just take it off and stick it in the glove box before they turn the key.

Related on MNN and TreeHugger:

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Smart watches and driving don't mix
Using a cellphone while driving is dangerous and often illegal, but do the rules apply to smart watches?