States target distracted drivers

Steven Blanchard, an emergency room doctor in Arkansas, testified last month in favor of a bill that bans all texting while driving in that state.

He had a very personal reason to do so: His 27-year-old son killed himself last fall, a couple of months after crashing his car into one being driven by a father of three, killing him.

Arkansas state Rep. Ray Kidd, a Democrat, has strong support for the bill banning texting, which was drafted by the college-student daughter of the man killed, Paul Davidson. Hilary Davidson originally proposed that all behind-the-wheel cellphone usage be banned in Arkansas, but Kidd convinced her he couldn't get the support for a more sweeping measure.

Highway safety experts can't seem to agree on whether hands-free cellphones are enough of a distraction to merit bans, despite a push that started in January by the National Safety Council. Many question the value of cellphone laws at all.

Still, if the campaign to ban hands-free cellphones gains steam, it could spell more problems for the already struggling auto industry. The safety chief for Ford Motor f visited safety groups and government officials around Washington, D.C., last month to drum up support for the Sync hands-free system offered on all Ford models. The system is for talking, texting and entertainment.

Jim Vondale, Ford's safety vice president, says his company's research has shown that when drivers were asked to perform several driving tasks, such as changing the radio, there was no difference in the ability to do the tasks while using the hands-free system compared with not talking at all. The Sync study participants were asked to acknowledge a pedestrian when she appeared on the highway shoulder and their response time — or lack of response — was monitored. The company found Sync users responded more quickly to the pedestrian's presence than when they were using handheld devices.

"Let's focus on where the real risks are: handheld phones, younger drivers, texting, people driving school buses and people driving mass transit," Vondale says.

John Ulczycki, the National Safety Council's vice president of research, communication and advocacy, says, "We haven't reached the point of being convinced that (Ford's) technology is such that we should change our policy."

Maintaining focus

Many high-end vehicles have hands-free or voice-recognition features for phones built in. BMW, for example, has the Bluetooth hands-free technology in all of its cars and works to ensure that all cellphones are compatible. General Motors gm is touting the hands-free capabilities of its OnStar satellite communications system.

The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers' Wade Newton says the group's members, which include all major automakers except Honda, have signed agreements that their in-vehicle communications systems are designed so drivers can "maintain the focus level necessary while driving."

Auto and some safety experts say states are moving too quickly to enact laws that may have little effect. Legislators have introduced more than 20 bills that would prohibit handheld mobile devices and at least four that would ban hands-free phoning.

Even the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which has concluded hands-free talking can be as risky as holding the phone, believes the laws have limitations.

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