Commentary

Wrong Moment, Wrong Place: Is Apple Watch A Driving Hazard?

You could see this one coming a mile away. On the weekend that the Apple Watch made its physical rollout to its first round of customers, we heard warnings about its real world dangers. But these are not hysterics from the usual Luddites and Traditionalists who see social dissolution and moral erosion behind every modern gadget. This is the century-old National Safety Council, which was chartered by Congress in 1913 to partner with business to improve workplace and product safety. They issued a warning this weekend regarding smartwatches generally and singling out the functionality of the Apple Watch in particular. The problem? Driving with a smartwatch that is inches from the wheel.

Their concern is not easily dismissed. “Drivers wearing smart watches can call, text, email and surf the Web, but the watch also vibrates when it receives a notification,” the NSC writes. “That vibration could be very difficult to ignore; a natural impulse will be to look at our wrist. This could take a driver's eyes off the road and mind off the drive -- a recipe for disaster.”

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Just when we were getting used to keeping the damn phone in our pocket and resisting that buzz on your hip, we get something even more tempting and perhaps more disarming. After all, it is easy enough for a smartphone user to presume that consulting that screen is somehow safer than fumbling with a phone.

In fact, at least one UK study argues that the opposite is true. Research on pre-Apple Watch smartwatches found that reading a message on these devices while driving requires 2.52 seconds of attention -- much more than simply speaking with a passenger (.9 seconds) and even more than using a handheld device (1.85 seconds). The NSC recommends turning the watch off or taking it from your wrist while driving.

In my mind, the NSC has a real point here. Arguably, managing a smartphone screen while driving is even more cumbersome than trying to use a smartphone, and it may well be harder to resist the urge to engage the device that seems to be within your gaze already.

Of course, for state legislators, this raises a new question about whether and which existing smartphone bans apply to smartwatches.

But the increasing intimacy of the devices themselves doesn’t just raise issues of safety and privacy. They touch on how consumers themselves will have to be much more involved in managing the data feeds that are vying for their attention in increasingly distracting ways. Early users and reviewers of the Apple Watch have commented that it requires a good deal of thoughtful setup to find a balance between convenience and distracting annoyance. Having your wrist buzz incessantly for every little notice seems to get old real fast. The only way to effect that balance is for the individual user to become more proactive in prioritizing their own data.

I wonder if an unexpected consequence of wearable media is deeper user involvement in curating their own media experiences. To some degree our inbox took us to one level of basic user curation -- the unsubscribe button. Mobile upped the ante with app alerts that requires a more careful and interactive editing of pocket buzzes. The smartwatch really requires tending in order to get the balance just right. This puts users in more direct control over their media experiences and makes them more active gatekeepers to their own consciousness.

Anytime the relationship between consumer and media changes in ways like this, it opens up new opportunities for advertisers and media to serve the new need. 

2 comments about "Wrong Moment, Wrong Place: Is Apple Watch A Driving Hazard?".
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  1. Mark Beers from Strata, June 16, 2015 at 5:39 p.m.

    Interesting article. This topic also came up on a recent episode of Leo Laporte's TWiT. They made the point that not only is the presence of the device itself potentially distracting, but apparently manipulating the watch often requires two hands which isn't ideal when driving.

  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost, June 17, 2015 at 3:25 p.m.

    Mark, you are right. Trying to interact with the Watch while driving is a dual hazard - distracting both eyes and drivng hands. I am writing a follow up piece on one in-car function that is especiallyt valuable involving driving directions. 

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