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Many states in the US have a hands-free phone law prohibiting drivers from calling or texting while at the wheel and on the road. Many others have lesser restrictions, such as only prohibiting new drivers from using their phones in the car, or only prohibiting texting while allowing calling.

In such states, would a driver be able to use, say, a smartwatch in the car? Obviously the features that are hands-free would be fine, but what about those features that aren’t hands-free? While it may not be in the spirit of the law, is that actually illegal?

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    You'd have to read the text of the law for each state. If you can narrow it down to one state, that would keep this from being "too broad". – Nate Eldredge Aug 26 '18 at 19:39
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Washington is one of the dozen-plus states with the strongest rules against messing with electronics while driving. RCW 46.61.672 says simple "A person who uses a personal electronic device while driving a motor vehicle on a public highway is guilty". "Using" is defined as "Holding a personal electronic device in either hand or both hands", which means what it says (literally, holding: the thing can be turned off). It also means

Using your hand or finger to compose, send, read, view, access, browse, transmit, save, or retrieve email, text messages, instant messages, photographs, or other electronic data; however, this does not preclude the minimal use of a finger to activate, deactivate, or initiate a function of the device

A personal electronic device is

any portable electronic device that is capable of wireless communication or electronic data retrieval and is not manufactured primarily for hands-free use in a motor vehicle. "Personal electronic device" includes, but is not limited to, a cell phone, tablet, laptop, two-way messaging device, or electronic game. "Personal electronic device" does not include two-way radio, citizens band radio, or amateur radio equipment.

It does not matter whether the device is a watch, phone, brooch or whatever.

Oregon's law ORS 811.507 defines the crime as:

A person commits the offense of driving a motor vehicle while using a mobile electronic device if the person, while driving a motor vehicle on a highway or premises open to the public:

(a) Holds a mobile electronic device in the person’s hand; or

(b) Uses a mobile electronic device for any purpose.

Condition (a) covers what Washington law says, but Oregon adds "or uses it" (which covers the case that you use it without holding it). "Mobile electronic device" is defined as "an electronic device that is not permanently installed in a motor vehicle" – e.g. a watch.

It appears that you'd have to do a state-by-state check to see what's legal. Under the letter of the law, listening to music on your phone (or similar device) is legal in Washington as long as you don't hold it at any time while driving, but not in Oregon unless the device is permanently attached.

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