Will smartwatches lure drivers to more distractions?

An estimated 10 million smartwatches will ship in the United States this year, significantly ramping up the likelihood of distracted driving crashes, consumer experts warn.

The smartwatches can beep and light up with new texts, emails, social media alerts, calendar and app notifications. They can also literally tap you on the wrist to get your attention.

Despite tougher enforcement of existing cell phone bans for drivers, more crashes are occurring, according to estimates released this week by the nonprofit National Safety Council. Cell phone-related crashes already account for 27 percent of all crashes in the United States, based on federal fatality data, observational data and other research.

"Smartwatches will be just as distracting, if not more so, than cell phones," said Deborah Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council, and former chair of the National Transportation Safety Board.

In 2013, 3,154 people died in motor vehicle crashes with distracted drivers, a 6.7 percent decrease from the prior year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But injuries went up: 424,000 people were hurt in distracted-driving crashes in 2013 compared with 421,000 in 2012, according to the NHTSA.

Teens are considered especially vulnerable. In March, a report sponsored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety looked specifically at crashes involving teens driving cars outfitted with DriveCam in-vehicle event recorders. In 58 percent of those crashes, the teen drivers were seen engaging in potentially distracting behavior leading up to the event. The most common distractions were attending to passengers (14.9 percent) and cell phone use (11.9 percent).

Hersman said it's impossible to get solid numbers on distracted driving because unlike tests that can determine if a person was driving drunk, police are often unable to prove if a driver had been using a cell phone when a crash occurred.

Police, she said, don't have the resources of the NTSB, which routinely issues evidence preservation orders to collect all wireless records and electronic devices in the vehicle operators possession. Hersman pointed to today's headlines stating that the NTSB is now examining the cell phone of the Amtrak engineer from the Amtrak train that crashed May 12 in Philadelphia and killed eight people and injured more than 200.

She said when she was chair of the NTSB, the agency repeatedly found technology distracting drivers before crashes, regardless of whether they were locomotive drivers, pilots or school bus drivers. "Even if there are rules at their companies, they still do it," she said.

Hersman fears the fight is only going to get tougher. "I think it's going to be an even higher hurdle to get people to take their watches off," she said.

"It's not just a behavior, it's an addiction," Hersman said.

One California attorney has already filed a lawsuit in hopes of pressuring the technology companies to lead a $1 billion annual safety campaign as the growth of the smartwatches spikes. "Distracted driving is about to become a MUCH bigger problem, because the launch of the Apple Watch is making smartwatches a mainstream product," Stephen Joseph, the attorney for the Coalition Against Distracted Driving, states on the website he created for the case.

The smartwatches are more dangerous than the cell phones because they feature haptic taps to interrupt the driver and have small screens that often require two hands to use, he said. Joseph, who is also a co-plaintiff in the suit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on April 20, said in a phone interview that the case "is not about a lawyer trying to make money, this is about saving lives."

And although some smartwatches feature do-not-disturb functions, Joseph points out that some functions are clearly made for drivers. "The Apple Watch has an app that provides turn-by-turn driving directions to drivers, including a tiny map," he argues on the website. "The watch delivers notifications before turns via the Taptic Engine. However, in reality, the Taptic Engine is virtually useless without looking at the map and the directions on the tiny screen. Using the app while driving is VERY dangerous."

Merely changing the laws might not help. "Police enforcement will be impossible," his site argues. "The police can see a cell phone in the driver's hand and issue a ticket, but a smartwatch belongs on the wrist and a ticket can't be issued for that."

Joseph, who earlier made headlines for his battles against trans fat in foods and on behalf on the plastic companies battling plastic bag bans, said he has actually owned smartwatches for more than a year, starting with a Pebble. "I have an Apple Watch. I love the Apple Watch," he said. "But I take it off in the car and I put it in the center console."

His lawsuit specifically calls out Apple, Samsung, Google and Microsoft to fund consumer educational campaigns.

"Consumer safety is important to Samsung," a company spokesperson said in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. "Samsung advises owners to follow any special regulations in force in any area, and always switch off your mobile device whenever it is forbidden to use it, or when it may cause interference or danger. When connecting your mobile device or any accessory to another device, we recommend consumers read the user's guide for detailed safety instructions."

Google declined to comment on the record for this story, but it does support the work of the Open Automotive Alliance, a group of automakers and technology companies that aims to make technology safer in cars. Apple, Microsoft and Pebble declined to comment for this story.

Those aren't the only companies in the smartwatch market, according to Luis Rincon, co-founder and CEO of wearables.com. "The smartwatch category is the fastest growing of all wearables with major brands like Swatch, IWC, and Tag Heuer announcing plans to release their devices soon," he said in an email. Those new models will be in addition to the 52 smartwatches already listed under the smartwatches category on Wearables.com.

The size of the smartwatch market varies depending on the data you're looking at, Rincon said, but rough estimates forecast 10 million to 11 million devices will ship in the United States this year and 25.7 million will ship worldwide.

"Also, it is worth noting that smartwatches and fitness trackers are beginning to blur," he said. "Wrist-worn fitness trackers are now beginning to offer displays that show time and smartphone notifications among other features, both of which were previously restricted to smartwatches. The Fitbit Surge is a great example of this."

The answer to the technology problem, Hersman said, may just be more technology.

Instead of adding more entertainment into their vehicles, people should be looking for better safety options, such as devices that automatically go into do-not-disturb mode if it senses you are driving. "We want to make sure we have the right technology." she said.

  • Amy Langfield

    Amy Langfield is a freelance writer raised in California and now based in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @AmyLangfield.