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Google Glass and Distracted Driving Laws

April 27, 2016

Google Glass, the band-shaped personal augmented reality device that is worn like a pair of glasses, is growing in popularity and a large number of test devices have already been distributed to users throughout the U.S. As the number of Google Glass users increases we are seeing more instances of the wearable technology crossing the law—most notably traffic laws. As Google Glass becomes more and more mainstream, what should the public know about current and future driving laws affecting the use of Google Glass while driving?

The Distracted Driving Argument

Don't get caught breaking distracted driving lawsGoogle Glass is designed to be worn like a pair of regular glasses, but instead of having two lenses which the wearer looks through, it has one small lens which the wearer can glance at while still being able to see without any direct visual obstructions. However, saying that there is no obstruction is not the same thing as saying that the tiny screen isn’t a distraction. The aim of most distracted driving laws is to make focusing on anything other than driving when you are behind the wheel illegal. For that reason a number of localities have started ticketing drivers who wear their Google Glass while driving.

Legislation attempts to keep up with emerging technology

When Google Glass was officially announced, not many people thought ahead to the potential legal implications of the new device. Those legal concerns, particularly in regard to distracted driving, are becoming more prominent now that 10,000 “Glass Explorers” in the U.S. are testing the device in the real world.
Reports are currently circulating of a California driver who was ticketed for driving while wearing her Google Glass device. The incident has sparked a lot of discussion on the rules governing the use of the device which is the first of its kind and does not easily fit into the definitions of distracted driving as they currently exist.  Some states, such as West Virginia and Delaware, are currently pushing for legislation that specifically bans the use of the device while driving. Other states may amend their distracted driving laws to include Google Glass.

The need for the law to catch up to new technologies has been highlighted this week as a story about a Google Glass Explorer in California being ticketed for driving while wearing the device. The issuing officer cited an existing California law that states, “driv[ing] a motor vehicle if a television receiver, a video monitor, or a television or video screen, or any other similar means of visually displaying a television broadcast or video signal that produces entertainment or business applications, is operating and is located in the motor vehicle at a point forward of the back of the driver’s seat, or is operating and the monitor, screen, or display is visible to the driver” is illegal. It stands to reason that Google Glass owners in the near future should expect this kind of enforcement of existing laws.

Google Offers Their Recommendation

Google GlassGoogle, not wanting any bad press and arguably attempting to play nice with lawmakers issued a statement regarding the use of Google Glass, “Read up and follow the law. Above all, even when you’re following the law, don’t hurt yourself or others by failing to pay attention to the road.” While that’s good advice, it’s to be expected that it will take the implementation of law for drivers to take such advice seriously.

Current Distracted Driving Laws: Where Does Google Glass Fit In?

The driver who was ticketed in California claims she did not know that it was illegal to drive while wearing her Google Glass headset—but should she have known? The quote from the California law that restricts the use of electronic devices with screens in moving vehicles seems as though it’s open to the kind of nit-picking, literal, verbatim interpretation that is often applied to the reading of a law in order to free someone who did, in fact, violate a law. What we mean is, it’s too easy to say “but Google Glass doesn’t have a screen, so the law doesn’t apply to this device”.

That kind of gap in terminology presents an enforcement problem which could only be corrected by amending or re-writing a law. What we have for years defined as a “screen” or “monitor” doesn’t really hold true in a literal sense for Google Glass. If you’re really determined you might get “display” to stick as a term that references the visualization screen attached to the Google Glass headband. This literal interpretation will likely be the method initial users charged with violations of distracted driving laws will use when trying to get out of being charged with distracted driving.

So how do you plug that hole? Part of the issue is that these types of laws are being crafted to address existing technology and often talk more about a device than they do about the intent of the law, which in this case is to keep the driver focused on the road rather on informational or entertainment focused devices. A better approach to ensure that new laws will create a catch-all for existing and future devices is to use broader terminology and to clearly express the aim or goal of a particular piece of legislation so that courts interpreting the law have clear guidelines for enforcement. This, of course, would require that legislators be properly educated about technology and how it can and will be forced to interact with the law not just now, but well into the future.

Compare.com distracted driving resources:

California’s Laws on Distracted Driving


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