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Should the government regulate Google Glass?

Thu, 10/31/2013 - 4:22pm
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

Every new technology or consumer widget must inevitably run headfirst into the regulatory powers of government — often in conjunction with automotive safety. So this was no surprise: San Diego police have pulled over a motorist and ticketed her for wearing Google Glass, touching off the latest battle between federal legislators and the private sector.

Officially, San Diego Police gave Cecilia Abadie a ticket for “Driving with Monitor visible to Driver” (i.e., Google Glass). The alleged violation is in reference to this law, which states the following:

“A person shall not drive 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 while driving the motor vehicle.”

The law is a tad ... ambiguous (not to mention cumbersome). While it does allow for GPS and other mapping displays that are “installed” in a vehicle, it could conceivably outlaw any smartphone or entertainment device “forward of the back of the driver’s seat”. After all, smartphones are perfectly capable of acting as television receivers or video monitors. So no iPhones in the front seat.

True, smartphones do more than play overpriced iTunes movies, but the police don’t know that. Trust me — cops only know what they see. I once got a ticket for not wearing a seatbelt, when in reality, I took it off after being pulled over.

The offending Google Glass unit in San Diego may have been distracting Cecilia Abadie or it could’ve been inactive; Abadie claims she wasn't using it, but the police rely on what they see, and they see a potential distraction.

Which leads to the obvious question — should we enable an arbitrary interpretation of a highly ambiguous law, thereby opening the door to further legislation? Do “distracted pedestrians” — of the texting variety — present a danger to motorists? Should we ban texting in public? And before you answer in the affirmative — as I’m sure many readers despise wayward texters — just remember that capricious legislation effects everyone.

My colleague, Kasey Panetta, previously discussed a case wherein a California driver was found guilty of distracted driving after checking a mapping program on his iPhone. To clarify, the motorist was holding the iPhone at the time of the incident — California allows for “mapping displays” that are secured in a holder.

According to the same law that arraigned Cecilia Abadie, mapping displays are acceptable if they include “an interlock device that, when the motor vehicle is driven, disables the equipment for all uses except as a visual display....”

I can see the sense behind this, because I remember the bad-old days before GPS (or, at least, before I owned one). Back then, your options were either: a) Memorize the directions beforehand (nope) or b) Glance at a map or set of directions periodically, usually in your lap (bingo!). Lord knows how many accidents this caused. (Distracted driving incidents, especially involving fatalities, often go underreported.)

But a heads-up display system that doesn’t take your eyes off the road and can provide useful information for motorists is more thorny. Should anything that competes with the driver’s vision count as distracted driving? Cars already display assorted stats on or near the windshield. And unlike Google Glass, which follows your line of sight, anything attached to your vehicle doesn’t move — in other words, you need to take your eyes off the road — even temporarily — to read a GPS map or check the temperature.

A device that displays pertinent information and allows you to keep your eyes on the road seems like the natural evolution in automotive technology. So why chop its legs out with restrictive legislation, thereby enabling the use of more antiquated, dangerous technologies? Should the government take such an active role in regulating consumer technologies like Google Glass?


What do you think? Does Google Glass represent a distracting driving hazard for motorists? Should the government regulate this burgeoning technology before it becomes ubiquitous? Or should we give pause before opening a figurative Pandora’s Box of ambiguous legislation?

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