Smart watches

Smartwatches distract drivers, but what does Australian law say about their use?

A single swipe of your cell phone while driving can get you in big trouble, but what about that other pint-sized device strapped to your wrist?

Vibrations, sounds, and lights from a smartwatch can be just as distracting, but there’s no specific law regarding their use.

Queensland motorist Susannah Hilliar admits she was distracted by her smartwatch.

“I found that I [was] I use it quite frequently, even if my phone was turned off.”

Ms Hilliar says she was distracted by her smartwatch. (Provided)

The Toowoomba resident said she took matters into her own hands to stop herself from looking at her smartwatch while driving.

“I reduced some notifications, reduced phone calls and texts and… even then I found it too distracting,” Ms Hilliar said.

No specific laws but other sanctions exist

Police officer talking to a driver, another officer in the background in Brisbane COVID-19 lockdown
In Queensland, the police can charge a driver with driving without care or attention.(ABC News: Chris Gillette)

In Queensland, there is no specific law relating to the use of smart watches, and hidden road cameras do not detect them.

But Andrew Mahon of Queensland’s Department of Transport and Main Roads (TMR) warned that anything that distracts a driver always carries penalties.

“A lot of people have smartwatches these days, and they connect those smartwatches to their cell phones, but it’s actually not an offense to use your smartwatch while driving,” Mahon said.

“We don’t recommend people get distracted by things like smartwatches, and you can get other infractions if you’re not careful.

“It comes with a $551 fine.”

Other states and territories address the use of smartwatches through other legislation where they may be considered “mobile devices” or “visual display units”.

In Victoria, for example, if your smartwatch is proven to have led to reckless driving, you could face a $2,180 fine for the first offense.

In New South Wales, if a smartwatch is used for mobile phone functions such as texting or social media, mobile phone rules apply.

As dangerous as drunk driving

The Australian National Crash In-Depth Study estimates that distraction is the main contributing factor in around 16% of road crashes with serious casualties across the country.

Other findings from the Journal of Safety Research indicate that distracted driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving.

Aerial shot of young woman wearing white t-shirt, blue stripes, hands on steering wheel, smartwatch on wrist.
Ms Helliar says she knows people who are more distracted by their watch than by the phone.(Provided)

“If you can’t use your phone [while driving]so how can you still be allowed to use your watch if it has the same devices and the same ability to be distracted as your phone?” Ms Hilliar said.

Survey shows how many are wearing a smartwatch

Oscar Oviedo-Trespalacios of Queensland University of Technology conducted a survey of 1,200 drivers across Australia, which ended in January.

He said 13% of participants used a smartwatch while driving.

“Of course, there will be situations where a driver can use this form in a very risky way that should be made illegal,” Dr Oviedo-Trespalacios said.

“But again, we can’t just rely on law enforcement because there are so many distractions that can’t be easily captured on camera.”

Smiling man wearing blue and white striped shirt in car looking back with one hand holding mobile phone.
Dr. Oscar Oviedo-Trespalacios says preventing all distractions is key to driver safety. (Provided)

Drivers still use their phones while driving

Where the laws are clear is on mobile phones there are heavy penalties for drivers using them – in Queensland it’s $1,033 and four demerit points.

Despite this, motorists are still caught in large numbers since the introduction of secret cameras late last year.

Around 33,000 fines have been issued since November, according to data from the Queensland Department of Transport and Trunk Roads.

The ABC contacted the Queensland Police Service, which said legislation on the use of smartwatches and technology while driving was a matter for the Department of Transport and Major Roads.

Dr Oviedo-Trespalacios said prevention was key to driver safety.

“Distraction isn’t just about the device, or the phone, or the smartwatch,” he said.