Smartwatch? Distracted Driver.

Laura Hillyer behind the wheel with a "smartwatch"

Smartwatches are one of the most popular pieces of technology available today. Users are attracted to the convenience of having a watch that allows them to see and send text messages and emails, make phone calls, check their calendars, and read the headlines.

On the health side, smartwatches offer step tracking, stand prompts, and workout-generated statistics. The Apple Watch even provides the user with the ability to monitor blood oxygen and perform an ECG!

While there is no question that smartwatches offer convenience and a host of benefits for their owners, they do have one considerable downside. Smartwatches are distracting. Given their location front and center on the wearer’s wrist, there can be no doubt that they pose a significant risk when worn by drivers on the road.

In fact, recent research carried out at HEC Montreal Tech3Lab in Quebec, found that smartwatches ARE MORE DISTRACTING than mobile phones.

Distracted driving is now a well-known road safety issue. Legislatures, including Ontario’s Queen’s Park, have responded to this danger by passing laws aimed at distracted drivers. Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act provides,

Hand-held devices prohibited

Wireless communication devices

78.1 (1) No person shall drive a motor vehicle on a highway while holding or using a hand-held wireless communication device or other prescribed device that is capable of receiving or transmitting telephone communications, electronic data, mail or text messages.  2009, c. 4, s. 2; 2015, c. 27, Sched. 7, s. 18.

Entertainment devices

(2) No person shall drive a motor vehicle on a highway while holding or using a hand-held electronic entertainment device or other prescribed device the primary use of which is unrelated to the safe operation of the motor vehicle.  2009, c. 4, s. 2.

Hands-free mode allowed

(3) Despite subsections (1) and (2), a person may drive a motor vehicle on a highway while using a device described in those subsections in hands-free mode.  2009, c. 4, s. 2.

This legislation was passed in 2009, a time when smartwatches were still novel.  Fast forward to present day 2022, and it is estimated that 1 in 6 people wear one.  The question now arises, “Have our distracted driving laws kept pace with the times?”.

Is it Illegal to Wear a Smartwatch and Drive in Ontario?

The short answer is “yes” – if the driver wearing the watch is distracted by it.  While smartwatches are not explicitly described in the Highway Traffic Act and have not received the same attention as mobile phones when it comes to distracted driving, the legislation is broadly worded enough to capture these devices, according to a 2018 ruling of Justice Phillipps in R. v. Ambrose, 2018 ONCJ 245.

In the Ambrose case, the driver was distracted by an Apple Watch and was charged under s.78.1 of the Highway Traffic Act.  Justice Phillips held that Ms. Ambrose was clearly distracted by her Apple Watch.  He stated:

It is abundantly clear from the evidence that Ms. Ambrose was distracted when the officer made his observations.  He testified that she was looking up and down repeatedly over the 20 seconds that he made his observations.  He observed the red light turn to green and the two cars in front of Ms. Ambrose move ahead while her vehicle remained motionless in the live lane of traffic.  It is clear that it was only when the interior of the motor vehicle was illuminated by the officer that the defendant was jolted into the reality of the operation of her motor vehicle.

In addition, Justice Phillipps had no difficulty whatsoever in finding that a smartwatch is captured by Ontario’s legislation.  He observed:

While attached to the defendant’s wrist it is no less a source of distraction than a cell phone taped to someone’s wrist.  It requires the driver to change their body position and operate it by touch.

Such a judicial pronouncement is, frankly, common sense to anyone familiar with wearing a smartwatch while driving. One of the main features of the Apple Watch is the access to frequent notifications, which remind the wearer of upcoming appointments, text messages, emails, and prompts to stand (obviously an impossible act while driving a vehicle).

Anecdotal observation is supported by scientific research.  For example, the HEC Montreal Tech3Lab study, which was published in Accident, Analysis & Prevention, evaluated the reactions of study participants in a driving simulator where they received and had to respond to text messages under four conditions.

The first three conditions required participants to respond orally to messages received:

  1. visually on a mobile phone;
  2. visually on a smartwatch; and
  3. orally via a speaker.
  4. A fourth condition required participants to both visually and physically receive and respond to text messages (non-orally).

By tracking the study participants’ eye gaze distribution, the scientists were able to reach the following conclusions:

  1. Participants were more distracted by the smartwatch than the mobile phone;
  2. Participants were less distracted by the speaker condition than the mobile phone;
  3. Participants were more distracted and had poorer driving performance in the texting condition (fourth condition) than any of the others; and
  4. Vocal assistants were the least distracting way of communicating while driving a vehicle.

The study’s authors made clearly compelling scientific observations that smartwatches and mobile phones cause drivers to be distracted. 

What Should I Do If I’m a Smartwatch User?

Smartwatch wearers need not fret – there is no need to take off the smartwatch before driving!  By reviewing smartwatch and mobile phone settings, notifications can easily be disabled for the period when one is driving – making both the driver and other road users safe! 

If You Have an Apple Watch…

Apple users can use the Driving Focus setting on the iPhone (which pairs with the Apple Watch) to stop notifications while driving.  The settings can be arranged so that the phone automatically disables notifications when the user is in a vehicle (either when the phone connects to Bluetooth or detects that the vehicle is in motion). Apple users can follow this link for helpful instructions.

If You Have an Android Mobile Phone…

Android users will have to follow the instructions for their particular devices to turn off notifications. 

Samsung users may wish to review their Google settings – personal safety – where notifications can be silenced.  There are also Do Not Disturb settings that can be enabled.

Pixel users can also enable Do Not Disturb settings to turn on automatically when driving in through Driving Mode.

If You Have a Garmin Watch…

Many Garmin watches received notification from the smartphone with which they are paired through the Garmin Connect app.  Accordingly, it is important to manage the notifications through your smartphone to ensure notifications are disabled while driving.

If You Have a Fitbit Watch…

Many Fitbit models have Focus and Do Not Disturb settings that can be enabled by turning off notifications.    

Fitbit models may use phone notifications, so it is important to ensure your phone notifications are turned off.

What Should I do if I’m in a Collision with a Driver Suspected of being Distracted by a Smart Watch?

Distracted driving is a major problem on Canadian roads. It is estimated that distracted driving contributes to 1 in 5 fatal collisions. Presumably, as smartwatch use becomes more common, the contribution of smartwatch distractions to these statistics will likely rise.

If you, or a family member, has been in a collision and you suspect that the other driver may have been distracted, it is important to document your observations and advise the police of what you’ve seen. If injuries are involved, it is important to speak with a personal injury lawyer about the circumstances of the collision and the possibility that distracted driving may have played a role, so that this can be investigated.

At Martin & Hillyer Associates, we are committed to helping car accident victims recover from their injuries and receive appropriate compensation.  We are always happy to answer any questions you may have.  

About The Author

Laura Hillyer is a Past President of the Ontario Trial Lawyers Association and a Burlington personal injury lawyer who received an Apple watch last year for Christmas.

While driving in a seated position, she found the “Time to Stand” reminders annoying and distracting until she learned how to turn notifications off while driving.



About the Author

LAURA HILLYER - Burlington Lawyer


Laura Hillyer focuses her practice on personal injury law and insurance litigation. She represents clients who have been seriously injured in motor vehicle accidents, or whose disability claims have been denied. She also represents those who have been injured in slip and falls as a result of negligence.