Feds mix messages on hands-free calling

Christina Rogers covers safety regulation and Volkswagen AG for Automotive News

When it comes to a ban on hands-free calling behind the wheel, U.S. safety officials aren't going to find an ally in U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Speaking Thursday in Washington, D.C., LaHood told reporters he wouldn't back the National Transportation Safety Board's call to banish all mobile devices -- hand-held and hands-free -- from the driver's seat while the vehicle is in motion.

LaHood's exact words were: "The problem is not hands-free."

The culprit: those pesky hand-held phones that cause drivers to take their eyes off the road and hands off the wheel.

Fighting distracted driving is a cause near and dear to LaHood's heart. He's taking Ford, General Motors and other automakers to task for loading up their cars with distracting technologies, such as apps that let drivers check Facebook, download YouTube videos and post updates to Twitter.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- the fed's main auto safety regulator -- also reports to LaHood and has placed distracted driving on its agenda.

"The problem is everybody in America has a cell phone or a texting device and they almost always use it in a car behind the wheel, which is dangerous," he added.

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman is probably shaking her head right now.

A mere ban on hand-held phones isn't enough, Hersman said last week when the NTSB announced its recommendation that all calls or texts placed from behind the wheel be barred, even those made on hands-free devices.

Her words: "Hands-free is not safer than hand-held in many circumstances."

So where does that leave many drivers? Probably confused and a little distracted.

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