“But Officer. . . I Was Using My Smartwatch, Not my Cell Phone”

Within the last year, the popularity of smartwatches has increased exponentially. It is likely that smartwatches have gain popularity because they have replaced many of the basic functions of a cell phone. While the smartwatch may arguable make daily-life functions easier, is the usage of a smartwatch permissible in times when a cellphone is not? In particular, in New York, is it acceptable to text on your smartwatch while driving?

Oftentimes, the law requires time to reflect new technological trends; however, New York law has adopted a broad statute that seemingly includes smartwatches within it confides. Under New York State’s Vehicle & Traffic Law (“NYS VTL”) § 1225-d, “portable electronic device” is defined as “any hand-held mobile telephone . . . personal digital assistant (PDA), handheld device with mobile data access, laptop computer, pager, broadband personal communication device, two-way messaging device, electronic game, or portable computing device, or any other electronic device when used to input, write, send, receive, or read text for present or future communication.” Under this statute, it is arguable that a smartwatch can be considered a “portable computing device.”

While NYS VTL law may broadly apply to smartwatches, a New York City-based attorney, Jeffrey Levine, highlights the difficulty for police officers to enforce vehicle and traffic laws regarding smartwatch usage. (See Consumer Reports article below) He acknowledges that the “police can act only on what they can observe.” Furthermore, Levine explains that “[if] you’re looking at a text on the smartwatch on your wrist [as opposed to your cellphone], to a cop it’s going to seem as though you’re checking the time, which is . . . legal.” In light of this issue, it is likely that, in order to guide New York Police Department (“NYPD”) officers, the Department will release sections within the NYPD Patrol Guide or NYPD bulletins outlining civilian smartwatch usage while driving.

In other areas in the world, people have allegedly received fines for using a smartwatch while driving. For example, according to Montreal’s CTV News, a man was fined over $100 for using his Apple Watch while driving. While there are not many reports of “smartwatch” driving fines, it is likely that the police will have ample discretion in administering tickets until laws are amended to specifically include smartwatch usages.

“NYS Vehicle & Traffic Law Excerpts: Distracted Driving, Talking & Texting,” New York State (last visited: Nov. 14, 2016) http://www.safeny.ny.gov/phon-vt.htm

Hayley Tsukayama, “Could Wearing a Smartwatch Behind the Wheel Land You in Hot Water?”, Washington Post (May 29, 2015) https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2015/05/29/could-wearing-a-smartwatch-behind-the-wheel-land-you-in-hot-water/

Terry Penney, “Is Your New Smart Watch Going to End Up Costing You a Ticket,” LinkedIn, (June 14, 2015) https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/your-new-smart-watch-going-end-up-costing-you-ticket-terry-penney

Amy Judd, “Using a Smartwatch while driving Could Result in a Distracted Driving Ticket,” Global News (May 13, 2015), http://globalnews.ca/news/1996913/using-a-smartwatch-while-driving-could-result-in-a-distracted-driving-ticket/

Mike Gikas, “Is Driving with an Apple Watch Safe? Is it Legal?” Consumer Reports (April 11, 2015) http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2015/04/smartwatch-distracted-driving-apple-watch/index.htm

Amy Langfield, “Will Smartwatches Lure Drivers to More Distractions?” CBS News (May 21, 2015) http://www.cbsnews.com/news/smartwatch-tap-may-lure-drivers-to-more-distractions/

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