Distracted by Technology: Are Hands-Free Devices in SYNC with Safe Driving?

6 years ago

Roadway car show 2 Meeting with Ford

A few days after I returned from participating in the Distracted Driving Forum in New York, I was invited to talk to Paul Russell, a Ford executive, in town to promote SYNC at the Twin Cities Auto Show. SYNC is Ford's voice-activated system that works with Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones and digital media players to provide hands-free calling, music selection, etc. with the touch of a button.

Interestingly enough, none of the people I met and talked with knew that I had been in New York on Monday discussing distracted driving issues with Consumer Reports and the U.S. Department of Transportation. In fact, they didn't even know I was an attorney until I gave them my business card. All they knew was that I had a blog and I had written about distracted driving in the past.

Multitasking While Driving

Not only have I written about distracted driving and recently participated in a panel discussion on this issue, I have researched and read numerous articles, interviews, statistics and tweets on the topic. I have come down hard saying it's not OK to EVER use your phone, hand-held or hands-free, while driving, regardless of whether the law allows it or not.

Research done at the University of Utah has shown that only 2.5% of us can truly multitask. This means that 97.5% can't do two or more things at one time and give full attention to all of the tasks engaged in at one time, but many of us probably think we can. I know, as a mom who is forced to multitask much of the day, I like to think I'm in that 2.5%, but if I'm being honest about it, I know I'm not.

Hands-Free Disengagement

Based on this research and other studies, I think that even hands-free options are distracting. Yes, it's true; you can keep your eyes on the road while you make a call, answer a call and have a conversation. The problem is that your brain is engaging with the person on the phone and the conversation you are having, not on the road on which you are driving. You can operate your vehicle and stay within your lane, but your reaction time is delayed: you may miss a turn, an exit, a stop sign, a red light, notice a bit too late that a car is swerving into your lane or a dog or child is darting out from a yard.

An argument that I've heard often is that talking hands-free is no different than having a conversation with a passenger in your vehicle, but there is a crucial difference. A person in your vehicle can see when traffic becomes heavy or when driving conditions have worsened due to weather, etc. The passenger will pick up on these social queues and stop talking or aid the driver in noting a red light or another vehicle careening into your vehicle's lane, etc.

Interesting Choice

Since my stance is that any cell phone use while driving is dangerous, I was a bit surprised when I was contacted to talk with Russell about this hands-free product. However, I went with an open mind and a lot of questions. We sat in the lobby of the dramatic and luxurious W Hotel in downtown Minneapolis to discuss this product. I was disappointed that I did not get a demonstration on a vehicle, as I had been told I would.

Yet, having done my research and emailed my friends at Consumer Reports, I had read about this product and watched a video demonstration for SYNC and the MyFord Touch program that works hand-in-hand with SYNC. I also requested tickets to the Twin Cities Auto Show so that I could see a demonstration of this product and check out other vehicles systems too. So, I was able to do a self-guided demonstration in a Ford vehicle set up for that purpose at the Auto Show.


SYNC is convenient and seems to be very simple to set up in your vehicle. Your phone, along with contacts, music files, etc. has to be connected and files downloaded only once. After that, the system will recognize your Bluetooth-enabled phone. The SYNC system itself is relatively simple, having to touch one button on the steering wheel to activate SYNC. Then it just a matter of learning the commands, such as: phone, radio, etc. which the system itself tries to help you with if it doesn't understand the command.

According to the SYNC brochure, this system provides: hands-free calling, texts read aloud (although Russell said it does not do this), music searches, automatic 911 calling should the air bag deploy, vehicle health reports, business directory searches, traffic alerts, turn-by-turn directions, and favorite alerts. SYNC works hand-in-hand with MyFord Touch system which is the 8 inch touch-screen navigation, music, climate control and information system located in the center of the dashboard. With SYNC, MyFord Touch does become voice-activated, as well. I was told, but did not see it demonstrated, that a number of touch-screen options are locked unless the vehicle is in park for added safety.

SYNC is different from many voice-activated systems in vehicles because it can connect to a MP3 Player or iPod and it's powered by Microsoft. This means that you can continue to update your system with new downloads as better programs or new maps and other programs become available. SYNC also supports most smart phones.

Russell agrees that texting in any format, even if it's read/dictated, or using hand-held phones is dangerous. Russell noted that while he wasn't sure of any particular distracted driving tests performed with the SYNC and/or MyFord Touch systems, Ford does conduct rigorous simulated tests on their vehicles as a whole. Russell said that Ford tries to balance safety concerns with the conveniences that drivers want in their vehicles. They feel that SYNC is safe and convenient.

MyFord Touch

I tried out the MyFord Touch with SYNC at the Twin Cities Auto Show. I found that with 2 loud, excited, car-crazed boys in the vehicle with me, SYNC did not always recognize what I was asking it to do. It was able to tune the radio to 89.3 the Current for me and understood a few other commands. It wasn't difficult to touch the button and speak commands, but I did find myself looking at the screen more intently when the system didn't recognize my commands.

Vehicle Manufacturers & Distracted Driving

I did talk to several vehicle manufacturers at the Twin Cities Auto Show. Many of the vehicles in addition to Ford also have voice-activated systems that work with your smart phone to some degree. Most that I spoke with did not have connectivity with MP3 players and/or iPods though. None are powered by Microsoft, setting Ford apart in that respect. It appears that most, if not all of the touch-screen systems do go into lockdown when the car is not in park, as well.

I found that on the whole, the vehicle representatives were not well-versed in their vehicle's voice-activation/touch-screen systems, nor did they have much information to contribute regarding their company's stance on distracted driving, other than to say it's dangerous.

On the back of the SYNC brochure in tiny print it does say, "Driving while distracted can result in loss of vehicle control. Only use mobile phones and other devices, even with voice commands, when it is safe to do so." Buick also told me that their touch-screen system does have a distracted driving warning message when the car is turned on.

The Scoop

While I will concede that if you absolutely are not able to put your phone down {yet} a hands-free option is better than taking your eyes off the road to use your phone, but not using your phone, hands-free or hand-held, is safest. Here are links to the Consumer Reports article on the Ford systems. Overall, Consumer Reports found SYNC to be helpful, as far as voice-activated systems go, but they thought the MyFord Touch was overly confusing and complicated. Based on my limited experience with it, I concur.

If you don't agree with me, don't worry the laws are in your corner...for now. I liken this to smoking. You know it's not healthy and it's a nasty, stinky habit {and if you don't know this, just trust me; it is}, but you just can't seem to quit. One day, you finally try to quit, maybe your child had told you she doesn't want you to die from cancer; or maybe a close friend or relative has just been diagnosed with cancer. You try, but you still need the nicotine fix; so, you start using the nicotine patches. Little by little, you reduce the amount you need and ever so gently wean yourself off of this addictive drug.

The same goes for cell phone use while driving. You know it's dangerous to you and others on the road, but it's a habit you can't quit...yet. So, go hands-free for a while. Then, maybe one day you'll be ready to stop using the phone in the car; or the laws won't allow it, regardless of how you feel. Over and out...


You might also like:


Driving to Distraction Part II: Why Using Your Cell Phone While Driving is a s Dangerous as Driving Drunk

Phone Down; Eyes Up: Distracted Driving Statistics Update & Driver Challenge

A Funny {or not so funny at the time} Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Travel Distractions & a Focus on Things Learned


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