Google Glass traffic school

Girl with leather jacket wearing Google Glass
Credit: Google

Cecilia Abadie was pulled over for speeding in October. She was ticketed by the California Highway Patrol for that, as well as for wearing Google Glass while driving.

Abadie decided to challenge the ticket and she had her day in traffic court recently.

This is kind of a big deal, because California’s distracted driving statute is a “primary law”; an officer can pull you over specifically because he or she saw you operating a phone while driving. So without the addition of some sort of flesh-colored shroud, anyone driving while wearing Glass does so at a greater risk of being pulled over, whether they’re operating the device or not.

The broader situation brings up the question: Is a Glass wearer at a greater risk of causing an accident? And should a distracted-driving law prohibit someone from wearing Glass in the car no matter how—or even if—they’re operating the device?

Distracted Glassing, at a glance

I’ve been a Glass Explorer since the summer and driving while Glassed was one of the first things I wanted to try. I came away from the experience with mixed impressions. I’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that I can use my phone in my car safely. I have a dashboard dock to the left of the steering wheel that mounts the phone’s screen at the same eye height as my side view mirror. I’m never fumbling around for the device, and a glance at the screen to check the remaining distance to the next turn is as incidental as checking my blind spots.

It’s a popular misconception that a Google Glass user is looking through a display into the real world. When you wake Glass (either by tapping the sidepiece or briefly tilting your head back) a business card-sized display lights up and hovers just above your right eye’s field of view. You need to glance up slightly to read it.

And that’s why I ultimately stopped wearing Glass in the car. My eyes flick to my docked phone as though it were just another piece of instrumentation on the dashboard; my eyes would have been going there anyway. Glancing up isn’t something that a driver would ever naturally do, unless the police pursuit for your Distracted Driving incident suddenly involved a chase helicopter.

Glass can also light up on its own to deliver alerts and warnings (such as an upcoming exit). This is a marvelous feature when the navigation app is helping me to walk through an unfamiliar city, but when I’m driving at night and this thing suddenly lights up, it snaps away my full attention immediately.

So I don’t use my Glass in the car. But is Glass inherently unsafe to use?

I don’t reckon so. Glass is the least distracting computer I own. The whole point of Glass is to give you access to digital services (navigation, communication, information) while allowing you to remain immersed in the real world.

Distraction is a feature problem, not a device problem

car home app

The Car Home app simplifies Android while driving.

What Glass needs is a “car mode” akin to the one built into Android. As soon as I dock my Android phone in my car and it connects to my audio system, the home screen that’s normally populated with dozens of tiny icons, fussy widgets, and a wallpaper image of a hopeful squirrel is replaced by a 2x3 grid of fat buttons. The only apps I can launch from Car Home Ultra are the seven or eight navigation and music apps I’ve put there, plus a button for voice commands. I don’t look at texts or emails or Tweets while I’m behind the wheel, not even when I’m at a stop light; it’s an idiotic thing to do and besides, Car Home makes it way too difficult.

The buttons are so big that I can see and tap them without even taking my eyes off the road. Some Android phones never even require a tap at all; they’re always listening for a trigger phrase that causes the device to await a voice command of any complexity.

This stuff wasn’t a part of Android in the beginning. Google recognized that an Android phone needs to be a different kind of device when it’s inside a car, and third-party apps then moved in to take advantage of those features.

Result: my Android phone is the exact opposite of distracting me when I’m driving. I insist that my phone is a safety feature. It gives me information that helps me to be a safer driver and (through podcasts and audiobooks) it engages the parts of my brain that get bored on long drives. Thanks to Android’s Car Mode, my phone can do all of those things without interfering with the senses and braincode modules that I require for safe driving.

Glass is still firmly in its experimental phase. One day, it could become a further refinement of Car Mode.

What if, instead of lighting up the screen to present fine-grained information, Glass only delivered a simple signal through my peripheral vision? I trust the traffic warnings that I get through Waze. If my Glass glowed up a symbol that indicated “Slow down,” I’d probably tap the brakes first and ask questions (in the form of looking at my phone screen) later.

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