Hand-free or not, a distraction is a distraction

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DETROIT -- I recently ignored my friends’ phone calls for 45 minutes.

I wasn’t trying to be rude, but I was driving.

Once I reached my destination, I answered them.

And guess what? We made our plans and I didn’t have to impede traffic -- or worse, kill myself or anyone else in the process.

So when I read that the National Transportation Safety Board will not back down from a proposal to bar drivers from making even hands-free phone calls from behind the wheel I thought: Hallelujah!

The NTSB is also urging automakers to avoid using distracting technologies.

Any form of calling or texting while driving is a distraction, including technology that promotes hands-free calling or texting such as MyFord Touch. Plenty of safety experts concur that there is no such thing as true multitasking. A driver’s mind is either focused on the road or the phone, but not both at the same time.

And NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman, in a Detroit News article, says: “Whether it's hand-held or hands-free, touching the dashboard, or waving at a windshield, it can be distracting," Hersman said. "What is the price of our desire to be mobile and connected at the same time? Can any message, call or text be worth someone's life?”

What will be the price for automakers who have invested millions in developing these hands-free systems such as Ford Motor Co.’s Sync and MyFord Touch if the government bars even hands-free phone calls?

MyFord Touch is a distraction in and of itself. It requires tapping through a series of commands on a touchscreen on the dashboard or giving voice commands to perform mundane tasks that should be accomplished intuitively by a simple push of a button or turn of a knob.

The MyFord Touch system has been plagued with problems and has hurt Ford Motor Co.’s quality ratings.

If the NTSB has its way, perhaps it’s time for in-vehicle hands-free systems to fade away.

You can reach Jamie LaReau at jlareau@crain.com. -- Follow Jamie on Twitter

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