You may have heard the California woman who was ticketed for driving while wearing her Google Glass successfully got her case dismissed. Huzzah, right? Make no mistake, though: It is but a momentary sigh of relief in Google Glass’ slow slide into illegality.
CNN, among others, had the story last week. Southern California woman Cecilia Abadie was pulled over for speeding by a California Highway Patrol unit in October, 2013. When the officer noticed Abadie was wearing her Google Glass, he not only ticketed her for speeding, but also ticketed her for distracted driving, citing a California law that was originally intended to stop motorists from attempting to watch a small TV while driving, according to the CNN article.
Commissioner John Blair reportedly threw out both charges against Abadie, based on his opinion there wasn’t enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the Google Glass was turned on at the time. Like carrying a small TV or DVD-capable head unit in your dashboard, having Google Glass on your head is only illegal if the officer can prove it’s turned on, the CNN article said.
That is of no consequence, however, in our age of rapidly expanding anti-distracted driving laws. What if you’re just using Google Glass to display Google Maps navigation directions to your kid’s soccer tournament? That doesn’t matter, either.
In time, merely wearing a Google Glass unit on your person while driving will be enough to warrant a traffic stop in some states — and even if state code does not allow the stop to be initiated by an officer who merely witnesses you wearing Google Glass, you had better believe that officer will find some reason, any reason, to initiate a stop: following too closely to the car in front of you, allowing your car’s front bumper to barely cross the white line at a traffic signal, failing to signal as you turn into your office parking lot. Fill in your preferred nonsense “violation” that wouldn’t earn you a stop if you weren’t wearing Google Glass.
I say that based on conversations with law enforcement officials in my home state of Tennessee over the years. Though the conversation here revolves around seat belt usage, not Google Glass, the premise is the same: Prior to 2004, officers couldn’t initiate a stop just because they saw someone not wearing a seat belt. They had to find another violation first — which, they told me, was easy enough. After a 2004 law change, officers are now allowed to initiate traffic stops for the sole reason of noticing someone not wearing a seat belt.
It’s very similar to the pre-2004 seat belt scenario for officers today trying to stop a vehicle of a suspected drug peddler. Police may have what they believe to be reliable intelligence that a car is carrying enough bricks of Mary Jane to build a cottage in the woods, but they can’t just pull it over and demand to search the vehicle. They have to find another offense to give them a reason to initiate a traffic stop. Failure to have a good reason to initiate the stop can result in a dismissal of a huge drug case.
While the Fourth Amendment will (hopefully) stop any change in the law that would allow police to stop cars all willy-nilly and search them for suspected drugs, it will not, in my estimation, stop states from enacting laws that make it legal for officers to ticket us just for the mere act of wearing Google Glass while driving. After all, there was no stopping the march toward today’s distracted driving laws that, in some states, go so far as to completely ban use of a handheld device including a phone. No Bluetooth in your car? Pony up for an aftermarket Bluetooth visor clip, buy a newer car equipped with Bluetooth, ignore your phone while driving, or risk getting ticketed next time John Law sees you with your phone to your ear while driving. Wyoming and a handful of other states are considering or have already added laws that explicitly make Google Glass illegal to use while driving.
The question remains whether Google Glass is as distracting as a smartphone or other non-wearable device. Doubtless it could be, for the kind of driver who insists on stupidly checking his tweets while navigating rush hour traffic. But, like most technology we find ourselves using behind the wheel these days, where the law attempts to color in black or white, life colors in grays. For example, perhaps using Google Glass for navigation will ultimately be less distracting to drivers than attempting to use a traditional navigation unit mounted somewhere on the dash, below the windshield. In that kind of usage, how different is Google Glass, really, than existing — and perfectly legal and accepted — head-up display (HUD) units found in many cars today? Both technologies force the driver to remove his or her eyes from the road ever-so-slightly to get at the information desired.
I don’t suspect most states will take such a nuanced look at how Google Glass might help make drivers safer when used properly. In fact, I suspect most states will do what most sates have always done in situations like this: They will fear what they do not understand — or rather, they’ll fear what they tell us they understand, even though they only understand one part of the equation. State-by-state, Google Glass will be made illegal for drivers to wear, no matter the usage. When even a libertarian stronghold like Montana is giving it serious consideration, you know the technology, for all its possibilities when it comes to helping us be safer drivers, is probably doomed in the car.