What to do about wearable technology


With a price tag of $1,500, Google Glass is not exactly aiming at the mass market. Presumably as it completes its beta stage testing and the software is tweaked, the finished product will have a more accessible retail price. But this is not the only wearable technology in the pipeline. There are already so-called smart watches and others are working on integrating hardware devices into clothing and accessories. The problem for lawmakers is to decide what controls, if any, are needed to maintain a reasonable level of safety on our roads. If we go back a few years, it’s been possible for motor manufacturers to instal the equipment to play video. As soon as the possibility of drivers watching a movie was realized, the majority of states passed laws making it an offense for drivers to watch any moving images whether on a screen installed in the dash or projected on to the windshield. As an aside, these laws were relatively easy to enforce because a law enforcement officer could look through the vehicle window and see what the driver was doing. If we come forward in time, portable devices can either download and play video content, or the content can be streamed. Since the legislation did not consider anything other than a fixed screen or static projection device, none of those laws would apply to modern portable technology.

The problem remains the same no matter what the source of the distraction. Anything that takes the mind of the driver away from the activity of driving is unsafe. That’s why more than forty states now have laws which make it an offense to text while driving. Unfortunately, the majority of these laws create exceptions for hands-free devices. No matter whether the driver holds the device, concentration is broken when a message is received and a reply is made. When Google Glass appeared, it was obvious the existing laws did not apply to it, so legislators in Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New York, New Jersey, Wyoming, and West Virginia introduced bills to outlaw the “use” of the named device. All these bills have stalled because even if they became law, how is a law enforcement officer to know whether the Glass is just being worn (say because the shortsighted driver has had prescription lenses fitted)?

Adam Gershowitz, professor at William & Mary law school, suggests lawmakers should either adopt a broad approach, e.g. to create an offense to operate a vehicle while wearing any wireless electronic communication device, or go for a more limited offense of driving while using a wireless electronic communication device. If the law also included the immediate right of the law enforcement officer to check the records of the device to see whether it was being “used” as opposed to worn, enforcement would become straightforward. Unfortunately, such laws would probably be considered too intrusive and therefore politically unacceptable to the majority of voters, therefore making them unattractive to the elected lawmakers.

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