Distracted driving catches blame for about 10% of all U.S. highway fatalities, according to government data, but if driver’s texting and chatting on their smartphones hasn’t become a serious enough problem, the situation could soon get even worse. Federal regulators are warning that drivers using Apple Vision VR headsets pose a “reckless” risk to everyone on the road.
More than 3,500 people a year are being killed due to distracted driving. Smartphones, such as the Apple iPhone, catch much of the blame, making it easy for motorists to make calls, text, even play games while behind the wheel. Now, however, a new digital toy could create further chaos on the road.
Earlier this month, a driver reportedly was pulled over and cited by police for driving while wearing the new Apple Vision Pro goggles. The technology is the latest in a growing list of virtual and augmented reality headsets permitting users to do everything from play videogames to text messages, make video calls and run other apps. What Vision Pro is not designed to do is let motorists drive a car.
Growing concerns about technology
Today’s automobiles are loaded with technology – such as forward collision warning and blind spot detection — designed to reduce the risk of crashes, whether involving pedestrians, bicyclists or other vehicles.
But other technologies complicate matters. Reversing a long-downward trend, the number of highway fatalities has actually risen over the past 17 years since Apple introduced its first iPhone. That’s particularly noticeable when it comes to pedestrian deaths. In 2007, 4,600 were killed in traffic incidents, according to a report on distracted driving by Cambridge Mobile Telematics. That rose to 7,500, the study showed, in 2021. That was a 40-year record.
Smartphones aren’t the only concern for safety advocates, however. There are a growing number of crash reports involving motorists misusing semi-autonomous systems such as Tesla’s Autopilot and Full Self-Driving technologies.
Now, however, virtual and augmented reality headsets are poised to become the next big consumer technology, the Apple Vision Pro generating a huge buzz since it went into public release.
NHTSA issues a warning
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has raised a warning flag after a number of drivers began loading social media posts showing them behind the wheel while wearing Vision Pro goggles. One, posted by Dante Lentini, also appeared to show him being pulled over and cited by police. Subsequently, he claimed the post was a “skit.” While he did actually drive his Tesla in Autopilot mode while wearing the Apple headset, Lentini told Gizmodo that the shots of police were shot elsewhere and “cut in” the video he made.
Safety advocates didn’t think that video – or others posted since then—was funny. Anything but, the agency issuing a statement saying, “Driving while wearing a VR headset is reckless and disregards the safety of everyone on the road.”
In a post on X, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg said, “Reminder—ALL advanced driver assistance systems available today require the human driver to be in control and fully engaged in the driving task at all times.”
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Apple could step in
Since first introducing the iPhone 17 years ago, Apple has taken a few steps to try to minimize the impact on distracted driving. Owners can go into Settings to enable the phone to detect when it’s being used in a moving vehicle. It then minimizes alerts and other functions that might catch the eyes and ears of a driver. The question is whether the tech giant will take a similar step to have the Vision Pro headset recognize whether it’s being used in a moving vehicle.
Part of the challenge is finding a way to detect whether the headset is being used by the driver or some other passenger. Some parents might be glad to have their kids distracted on a long trip by letting them wear the Vision Pro.
Motorists ignore the warnings
In its iPhone support page, Apple notes that the mobile setting “is not a substitute for following all the rules that prohibit distracted driving.”
The Vision Pro user guide, meanwhile, says it is “important to use the device in a safe manner,” adding that it should “never (be used) while operating a moving vehicle, bicycle, heavy machinery, or in any other situations requiring attention to safety.”
For its part, Tesla also advises motorists that they must always maintain at least a light grip on the steering wheel and remain aware of driving conditions, ready to retake control in a hurry, if necessary. There are plenty of social media posts showing that advice being ignored. And there’ve been a number of crashes, many fatal, underscoring the potential dangers.
Whether the Vision Pro and similar devices wind up making the distracted driving problem even worse remains to be seen – but the risks are clearly there.