Is it illegal to use the Apple Watch while driving? [UPDATE]

UPDATE: When we first published this story, the Apple Watch was impending but far from a known quantity in terms of timing and availability. Today, Apple gave us a lot more insight into its first smartwach, announcing that it will be available for pre-order on April 10 and on sale by April 24. Apple says its watch will start at $349 for the most basic model, while a 18k-gold Apple Watch Edition will ask as high as $10,000.

To start, the Apple Watch will offer basic functionality like music playing controls, summaries of information and apps you use regularly, and messages of all kinds (texts, calls, etc.). None of the watch's impressive functionality seems well suited to use while driving, we'd like to mention, which leaves the question of it's ultimate legality while doing so an open one.

In conjunction with the typical Internet feeding frenzy that goes hand in hand with the announcement of each new iPhone, Apple has been cited in countless headlines this week after its debut of its new Apple Watch on September 9. The so-called "smartwatch" is far from an industry first – Samsung, Motorola and Pebble all have models on the market, and who can forget 2003's Fossil Wrist PDA? – but as per usual, Apple's entry is garnering more than its fair share of media attention.

The Apple Watch ("iWatch" to many) has also raised interest of a more ominous sort from certain regulatory bodies. Last week, multiple automotive outlets in the United Kingdom ran stories quoting officials from that country's Department for Transport as saying that use of an iWatch while driving would carry the same penalty as use of a mobile phone. For the Brits, then, getting nabbed checking an alert on one's wrist might mean the same 100-pound fine (about $160) that was instated last August.

For the Brits, getting nabbed checking an alert on one's wrist might mean a $160 fine.

If that seems like a strong response to a product that won't even hit the market until next year, UK road safety research body the Institute of Advanced Motorists would like to have a word. In a recent release, the IAM unfavorably compares the use of a smartwatch while driving to its studies of smartphone use, suggesting that such watches might demand two-handed use by drivers with "constant alerts" requiring "regular attention" from those behind the wheel.

Now, as right-hand steering wheels will tell you, the British and we Americans don't always see eye-to-eye on traffic code. With the exception of a few challenges to the legality of driving with Google Glass, distracted driving laws in the US haven't seemed to move past the paradigms of smartphones, hands-free headsets and texting. compiles a list of the distracted driving laws from state to state in the US, which really run the gamut from no bans at all (Montana), to primary offenses for the use of handheld phones, all texting, and any cell phone use whatsoever for bus drivers (California).

Most states have some laws on the books regarding texting while driving, however, as its consumption of visual, manual and cognitive attention from the driver is the most negatively engaging.

Importantly, a lot of distracted driving laws also use the term "handheld" in their prohibitions. A smartwatch might not require the use of your hand any more than a traditional watch does, though many (Apple Watch included) will use touch controls for some features. It's logical that some of the "handheld" laws might transition to smartwatch use, though it's still pretty difficult to understand how these bans might be enforced with any consistency.

We reached out to representatives at the US Department of Transportation and others for comment, and have yet to get a statement, but the truth seems to be that this is an area that is still just being considered for study. As ever, the legal code will trail technology despite the best efforts of all involved. One thing seems pretty clear even now, though – we're all better drivers with both hands on the steering wheel.

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