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Is the Apple Watch Dangerous for Drivers?

The headlines get wackier. Let me explain. Now the first wristwatches can be dated back to the 16th century, long before cars were invented. But from the very earliest days, motorists were driving while wearing their watches, and I’m sure they would manage a casual glance every so often. I wouldn’t know how many accidents have been caused by people distracted by something else while driving, and it doesn’t have to be some sort of mechanical or electronic gadget.

True, if you have a smartphone or a smartwatch, they will send you alerts from time to time if so configured. That is certainly a potential distraction. That goes without saying, so drivers need to be responsible about such matters.

But with Apple Watch getting ready to ship, it was high time to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt about it and the deleterious impact on auto safety. So we have an attorney filing a lawsuit demanding that Apple, Microsoft and Samsung finance a one billion dollar educational campaign to alert teens as to the danger of playing around with their smartwatches while driving — but not adults? This, evidently, as opposed to texting on their smartphones, with is even a more foolish prospect.

The logic behind this? Well, there’s a claim from Transport Research Laboratory a UK-based consulting firm, that reaction times when looking at a smartwatch are delayed some 2.5 seconds, compared to 1.9 seconds with a smartphone. Based on a report in the Los Angeles Times, though, there’s no indication whatever that the report used an Apple Watch to conduct the tests. As you know, the first units won’t be reaching customers until Friday, April 24th. Earlier samples got into the hands of some entertainment figures and Apple’s group of “preferred” tech reviewers. But that’s an extremely small number, and there’s no evidence that any of these units were subjected to this alleged test.

So without an Apple Watch at hand, it’s hard to take the numbers seriously. Remember that the Apple Watch is designed to convey information with a glance, which appears to mean that you would be less distracted by those notices than you are with a smartphone. I am not, however, considering situations, such as Apple’s CarPlay or Android Audo, where notifications are funneled through the auto’s infotainment system. But isn’t that also a potential distraction?

The legal papers make this claim: “The temptation to check the tiny screen immediately after receiving a notification is virtually irresistible. The lawsuit further alleges that the act of looking at the watch means “the road becomes invisible to the driver.”

More than picking up your smartphone and looking it it? Or seeing a notice on your car’s display?

Now I would be sympathetic to a campaign alerting people, and not just teens, about the dangers of distracted driving, but focusing such attention on smartwatches makes no sense. Besides, since what is expected to be the most popular smartwatch wasn’t even available to be included in any tests of potential driving distractions, the claim from this Transport Research Laboratory appears to be even less credible.

I realize many of you will be looking for the article, although I’m not providing a link. It strikes me as just an attempt by an ambulance chasing attorney to get some publicity ahead of the release of the Apple Watch. Otherwise, why was the lawsuit filed now? And wouldn’t it have made sense for the LA Times to actually interview the attorney and ask about the timing? The Pebble smartwatch, for example, has been available since 2013 and it doesn’t take 18 months or two years to draft legal papers. The source of the survey should also have been interviewed.

Too often, however, even prestigious newspapers such as the LA Times serve more as copying machines than media outlets performing real journalism. Real journalism would have followed through on this story beyond than just publishing the details of the lawsuit and asking the defendants for a reaction. That’s lazy journalism, since nobody would expect a multinational and publicly traded company to respond to such legal actions unless it’s considered reasonably substantial.

But when Apple becomes part of the story, and that’s inevitable even if no specific smartwatch was mentioned, it’s bound to get more attention. Even if the lawsuit is tossed out, as it should be for obvious reasons, the lawyer has succeeded in making a name for himself, although he’d be the last attorney I’d hire if I lived in Los Angeles and needed legal help.

Still, the three companies named in the lawsuit will have to respond within the appropriate timeframe, and one expects that those responses may yield some quotables if they consist of more than basic denials. Or maybe there’s the unlikely possibility that a legitimate discussion will be fueled to consider more seriously all the causes of distracted driving. That would be a useful development.

But it won’t happen through grandstanding.