William Straus, like many others, saw the videos in recent days of people behind the wheel of a Tesla in Autopilot mode, sporting their new Apple Vision Pro headsets and typing on an invisible keyboard.
“They’re all over the Internet, these idiots driving Teslas with their hands up in the air,” the state representative said.
Some claimed their video was staged. No matter: Straus wants to make it illegal.
The Legislature’s transportation committee on Wednesday approved language that would ban the use of the new virtual reality headset or other similar technologies while behind the wheel in Massachusetts.
Straus, the committee’s House chair, said he crafted language with his staff over Monday night and Tuesday morning and added it to an existing proposal that would, among other things, bar drivers from recording or broadcasting themselves while behind the wheel. That it advanced out of committee less than 48 hours later qualifies as light speed by Beacon Hill standards. (The bill must still pass the full House and Senate.)
Apple’s Vision Pro has been hailed as “awe-inspiring,” a “marvel,” and both “spectacular and sad.” It’s also not cheap: It starts at $3,500, not counting various add-ons that could hike the cost by another $1,000 or more.
How many people will willingly fork over that amount and still be able to afford their car payments is unclear. But that’s not the point, Straus said.
State government and lawmaking are often criticized for not moving quickly enough to keep pace with technology and its ramifications on society. Massachusetts was the last state in New England to pass a ban on hand-held devices while driving, finally approving language in 2019.
This time, the transportation committee’s vote on Straus’ proposal comes five days after the Vision Pro went on sale.
“This is absolutely the correct time to wall this off,” said Straus, a Mattapoisett Democrat. “People who operate motor vehicles already have too many distractions.”
The videos have already drawn the attention of federal officials. US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg warned people about driving while distracted in a post on X that also included a video of a driver using the new virtual reality goggles in a Tesla Cybertruck pickup.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also weighed in, saying that driving while wearing a virtual reality headset is “reckless and disregards the safety of everyone on the road.”
Apple’s own guidelines seek to ward people off from the practice. “Never use the device while operating a moving vehicle, bicycle, heavy machinery, or in any other situations requiring attention to safety,” it reads.
Straus’ proposal would explicitly not allow drivers to wear, hold, or “otherwise utilize or interact with a spatial computer” or an augmented reality or mixed reality device.
It also would ban drivers from viewing any video, images, or text unrelated to operating or navigating the car, be it displayed on a screen or “otherwise worn as a headset or elsewhere on the operator’s body.”
Motorists would face the same fines they do now for using their phone to text while driving: $100 for a first violation, $250 for a second violation, and $500 for every violation after that.
As roadway and pedestrian deaths have spiked in Massachusetts, advocates and lawmakers alike have pressed for stricter rules. The 2019 hands-free law marked one of the more dramatic changes to state law, though some research has questioned whether it’s actually working.
Cambridge Mobile Telematics, a Cambridge firm that collects digital data from millions of cars, said last year that Massachusetts drivers spent 28 percent more time handling their phones behind the wheel in 2022 than they did in 2020 when the hands-free law took effect.
Just imagine them in virtual reality goggles, too.
“Let’s jump on this before people think this is their right to use these devices while driving a car,” Straus said.