Who can resist that buzz on your wrist?

Everyone knows the dangers of using a mobile phone while driving. The law is also very clear about penalties for reading, watching and texting on phones. But the road rules don’t mention smartwatches at all. Does that mean you can happily use a smartwatch instead? investigates.

Research in the UK

First of all, demand for smartwatches appears to be strong. People bought 19 million Apple Watches in 2015, soon after their introduction. By 2018, they were buying 45 million of all brands of smartwatch, up 56% from 2017.

In the UK, Transport Research Laboratory analysed the impact of their use while driving. To do this, they compared the times it took for a distracted driver to respond to an emergency manoeuvre:

  • 2.52 seconds while reading a smartwatch message
  • 1.85 seconds when using a handheld mobile
  • 0.9 seconds while talking to a passenger.

There’s no doubt the smartwatch message was more compelling to the driver than the handheld mobile or their conversation with a passenger. Researchers concluded smartwatches are three times more distracting than mobile phones.

Canadian research

University of Toronto researchers in 2017 compared how notifications on smartwatches and smartphones affected the distracted driver.

They found participants more quickly read notifications on their smartwatch than their smartphone. Drivers also took longer to read them aloud and did more glancing longer than 1.6 seconds. Compared to using smartphones, they took longer to reply to notifications and had longer brake reaction times.

The research seems unequivocal, but expectations of drivers in NSW are not so clear.

Are smartwatches legal in NSW?

There is no NSW law specifically against using a smartwatch in your car. After all, there is no law against looking at your watch to see the time.

That means there are probably hundreds of drivers currently sneaking a look at their smartwatches.

But there are mixed messages for drivers. NSW police have said you could be fined for using your smartwatch while driving. This is because of the NSW road rule 299(1) about visual display units, which says:

A driver must not drive a vehicle that has a television receiver or visual display unit in or on the vehicle operating while the vehicle is moving, or is stationary but not parked, if any part of the image on the screen:
(a) is visible to the driver from the normal driving position.

A smartwatch is a type of visual display unit and it is visible to the driver while driving. Following this rule, you would need to take it off and stow it somewhere.

However, just because you are wearing a smartwatch does not mean you are actually looking at it. For example, you may be playing your favourite music. The current top five uses are for fitness, playing music, GPS, notifications and contactless payments.

One journalist asked NSW police directly but they would not say whether you should have to take the smartwatch off. They simply said drivers should keep their eyes on the road.

Stay fully in control

You may think wearing a smartwatch will not affect your driving. But people commonly overestimate the ability to do two things at once. Besides, the temptation to check that screen immediately after receiving a notification is virtually irresistible.

If using a smartwatch is not banned outright, you could be stopped for:

  • dangerous, careless or inconsiderate driving
  • failure to be in proper control of the vehicle
  • driving without due care and attention.

It is possible to be fully in control of a vehicle while wearing a potentially distracting smartwatch?

Finally, we came across a fascinating finding about talking on the phone while driving. We already know talking on a mobile in the car influences the way you drive. But it also works the other way round. The very fact you are driving changes the style, content and result of your phone conversations – and your decision-making.

So talking on your smartwatch (or mobile) while driving has all kinds of unintended consequences.

Corrina Baird

Writer and expert

Corrina used to lend her car to her kids and discovered first hand what Ls, Ps and demerits mean for greenslips. After 20 years of writing and research in financial services, she’s an expert in the NSW CTP scheme. Read more about Corrina

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