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Google Glass while driving is illegal in some states, but should it be?

Should law enforcement endorse use of Google Glass behind the wheel?

By Open Source Community on Wed, 10/30/13 - 12:20pm.

After receiving a citation for wearing Google Glass while driving, California resident Cecilia Abadie took to her Google+ profile to debate the merits of the ticket and whether the law is contradictory. It's a discussion worth having.

Right now, the laws regulating the use of consumer technology while driving are pretty murky, and seem to be open to interpretation. As I covered last month, one Georgia state police officer who has issued more than 800 tickets already this year revealed that the law forbids the use of a "communications" device while driving, meaning police are supposed to ticket drivers for using apps like Google Maps or Apple Maps on a smartphone. However, GPS-only devices like those made by TomTom or Garmin are perfectly legal to use behind the wheel, even though they are just as, if not more, distracting to the driver.

In the comments section of her Google+ post, Abadie and others determined that the law she is charged with violating is meant to prevent the use of screens for video playback that can distract the driver. Glass can be used to watch video, and therefore poses a constant threat to the violation of this law.

One conflict brought up in the comments was that, if Glass is illegal to use while driving, then any device that can be mounted to a car's windshield, like a GPS device, must be as well. People have been mounting GPS devices for years, and vendors have legally sold the mounts for nearly as long as they've sold GPS devices.

But, as it turns out, GPS windshield mounts are actually illegal in most states. A 2012 post on the POI Factory blog combed through state laws on the matter, finding that most states do not allow drivers to mount devices to the windshield, and many of the states that do allow it have restrictions on the location of the mount. In the map below, courtesy of USA Today, red states do not allow GPS devices to be mounted on windshields, green states do, and yellow states allow them with restrictions.

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In California, the law, which can be read here, includes this statement:

(2) A person shall not drive any motor vehicle with any object or material placed, displayed, installed, affixed, or applied in or upon the vehicle that obstructs or reduces the driver’s clear view through the windshield or side windows.

The key phrase here is "in or upon the vehicle." Because the Glass device was placed in the vehicle, as it was on the driver's head, it may be in violation of the law.

This is where the debate will begin. The law forbids "any object or material...that obstructs or reduces the driver's clear view through the windshield or side windows." The question here is whether Glass actually obstructs a driver's vision. In this demo of Glass for navigation shot (perhaps illegally) by Phandroid, GPS navigation commands only appear when needed, and even when they do they are somewhat transparent. You could make the argument that Glass video playback is designed to make sure the driver can still see the road, and is a preferrable alternative to the wide-reach texting issue plaguing roads today.

However, the simple fact that Glass projects text, images and video could be enough to justify the law. That fear has already prompted authorities in the UK and some U.S. states to seek a ban on Glass behind the wheel.

Unfortunately, it looks like lawmakers are moving faster than the research, although there are those who are trying to study the safety effects of Glass while driving. After driving more than 1,500 miles while wearing the device, Glass Explorer Chris Barrett told Venture Beat in August that he thinks Glass could save lives if used in a wide capacity. Separately, Wichita State University professor and expert on driving distractions Jibo He announced in July that he was embarking on a study to gauge the impact of Glass on driving. At the time, he said results of the study will not be ready until November. Network World has reached out to him for comment, and will update this post if he responds.

Quite simply, whether Glass should be banned from use behind the wheel of the car depends entirely on what the research shows. As the New York Times has pointed out, the simple assumption is that Glass will prevent drivers from looking at their phones, and will subsequently drive more safely. But that doesn't account for any new distractions Glass may pose.

An interesting aspect of this research will be a comparison between Glass and the technology that manufacturers are putting in new cars today. Car ads of late sound more and more like consumer tech ads, touting hands-free and Bluetooth integration with smartphones alongside increasingly large touchscreen dashboard displays. This is the auto industry's attempt at resolving the texting-and-driving issue while simultaneously boosting sales. If Glass is safer, the ban on Glass behind the wheel may become a lot more important to the auto industry.