Drivers can keep in touch hands free

If anything frustrates me it’s trying to text-message someone on my cell phone while driving my car.

It’s just too difficult to keep my eyes on the road and on the screen of my phone. Before I know it, neither hand is on the wheel because I’m making obscene gestures at the people who are beeping and yelling at me for not focusing on driving.

Which leads to a lot of misspellings and confusing text messages: “I will be there in five,” becomes, “I won a tree online.”

I found the solution to my problem during a media event for this past week’s Specialty Equipment Market Association exposition for the automotive specialty and performance parts industry.

Ford and Microsoft have teamed up and are equipping vehicles with new technology called SYNC in a dozen 2008 Ford, Mercury and Lincoln models.

SYNC is a voice-activated communication and entertainment system. Basically, a user simply needs to hook up a cell phone or iPod to the system and they can control the devices with voice commands.

In other words, if you want to listen to Perry Cuomo, you push a talk button on the steering wheel and say, “Select artist: Perry Cuomo.” When you get tired of the crooner, you can push the talk button in the middle of a song and say, “Select song: ‘Viva Las Vegas,'” for some Elvis.

Voice-activated commands also work for your cell phone.

One of the product’s features reads text messages to you. Responses can then be selected from a list of pre-written messages without having to type.

The idea is you can talk on your cell phone, receive and send text messages, listen to the music on your iPod, all without taking your hands off the steering wheel.

There have been studies that show hands-free cell phones are just as distracting to drivers as a hand-held cell phone.

But I would be hard pressed to convince any reasonable person that telling your cell phone to send a text message through voice commands is as distracting as actually trying to type it in while you are driving.

In fact, text messaging with the SYNC system takes it a step further. During a recent demonstration of SYNC at Friendly Ford on Decatur Boulevard, new car manager Justin Price told me the vehicle must be going under 3 mph for SYNC to perform text-message commands.

The reason? Ford recognizes that text messaging is distracting to drivers.

The demonstration felt like some science fiction flick or a “Knight Rider” rerun.

There was this car, a 2008 Ford Focus, talking to the driver. “Please say a command,” the SYNC system said in a sultry female voice, which cannot be changed.

Price spoke his command and SYNC obeyed.

I was blown away when Price made a call from the car and then shut it off. The call transferred directly to his cell phone. After restarting the vehicle, the call went back to the vehicle’s SYNC system and Price was hands free.

Pretty cool.

The SYNC system doesn’t work with all phones. You can check out if your phone is compatible at syncmyride.com.

The technology is developing, “and it’s exciting to think about where it will be five years from now,” Price said. He added that it’s the biggest leap in voice-activated technology for cars since OnStar.

Velle Kolde a spokesman for Microsoft, said SYNC will be available only in Ford vehicles until November 2008, after which it will be available in all vehicles. The option price for SYNC right now is about $400.

The technology will become more appealing as more and more states pass laws that restrict cell phone use while driving. Utah and Arizona already have some cell phone-use restrictions, and a total hand-held cell phone ban will go into effect in California in July.

Granted there seems to be no rush in Nevada, since our representatives in state government have rejected previous attempts to pass restrictions on driving while using cell phones. They’ve also barred local municipalities from passing their own cell phone laws.

But industry folks believe some sort of ban will likely be passed in most, if not all states, eventually.

In Nevada, advocates for a full ban or just restrictions will likely continue their push in 2009. Susan Martinovich, director of the Nevada Department of Transportation, recently identified several safety issues that the Legislature could address to help cut down on driver distractions. A cell phone law was at the top of the list.

I don’t need to read a study to know that texting or talking on a cell phone while driving is distracting.

I’ve done it. And if you’ve done it, you also know it is distracting. Just because I’ve successfully done it without getting into a wreck doesn’t mean it isn’t going to happen.

(By the way, I believe cell phones are a major reason why valley drivers don’t use their turn signals. Drivers often use their right hand to hold the steering wheel and their left to hold the cell phone to their ear. And since turn signals are on the left side of the steering wheel … well, you get the picture.)

But if common sense doesn’t convince you, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says drivers using cell phones are four times as likely to get into an injury crash.

I would bet eventually all new vehicles sold will come with SYNC or similar technology. Many vehicles already come equipped with Bluetooth hands-free technology, but nothing on the market that I’m aware of integrates cell phone use and music like SYNC.

While other companies are sure to come up with duplicate technology, the basic idea of controlling these devices through voice activation is the future.

If you have a question, tip or tirade, call the Road Warrior at 387-2904, or e-mail him at roadwarrior@reviewjournal.com or fmccabe@reviewjournal.com. Please include your phone number.

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