The U.S. Dept. of Transportation will convene a summit next month on distracted driving to give auto makers a chance to detail how they are trying to make tasks such as talking on cell phones less risky.

But a leading safety advocate says if car manufacturers are serious about safety, they should zap telematics altogether.

"Auto makers could do a lot," says Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, a public-safety advocate in Washington.

"Cut off all integrated telematics when the car is shifted into drive," he suggests. "If you are serious about combating driver distraction, that is what you have to do."

Announcement of the summit comes on the heels of a scandal at the DOT, where a lawsuit filed by Ditlow's group unsealed National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. research revealing it withheld from the public important findings on the dangers of cell-phone use while driving.

Secretary Ray LaHood says his summit, which invites senior transportation officials, elected officials, safety advocates, law enforcement representatives, auto makers, suppliers and academics to discuss ideas to combat distracted driving, especially will address the growing problem of text-messaging from behind the wheel.

Last year, he says, the crash of a California commuter train involved a driver texting on a cell phone. The crash killed 25 people and injured 135 others.

In another incident, a truck driver in Florida revealed he was texting just before a collision with a school bus that killed a student; and more recently, a 17-year-old from Peoria, IL, was killed when she drove off the road while texting with friends.

"If it were up to me, I would ban drivers from texting, but unfortunately, laws aren't always enough," LaHood says in a statement announcing the summit. Texting while driving is illegal in 14 states and the District of Columbia.

"We've learned from past safety-awareness campaigns that it takes a coordinated strategy combining education and enforcement to get results," LaHood says.

"That's why this meeting with experienced officials, experts and law enforcement will be such a crucial first step in our efforts to put an end to distracted driving," he adds, pledging to take concrete steps after the meeting to make drivers think twice before attempting tasks that will take their eyes off the road.

A spokeswoman for the DOT would not elaborate on whether those concrete steps may include a national law restricting texting or cell-phone use, reiterating the summit will provide LaHood with the necessary direction.

Wes Sherwood, a spokesman for Ford Motor Co., says the auto maker will attend the event and tell lawmakers about its Sync entertainment system developed with Microsoft Corp. One of Ford's most prized options, Sync relies on voice commands from the driver to change music, make phone calls, respond to e-mails with canned messages, and new this year, set up route navigation.

"Voice commands are the way of the future," he tells Ward's. "It's been an outstanding success because it keeps people connected without taking their eyes off the road."

Much of Sync's safety testing was conducted within Ford's VIRTEXX, or VIRtual Test Track Experiment, simulation dome. Sherwood says the lab has yielded mountains of additional findings surrounding driver distraction, such as data showing differences between the habits of younger and older drivers, which Ford shares with the government and safety advocates.

For example, younger people dial their phones much faster, but tend to look down more when they are dialing, he says. And teens already are our riskiest drivers.

The driver-distraction summit also comes after NHTSA revealed it decided earlier this decade to shelve a 10,000-driver study examining the dangers of cell-phone use while driving. In addition to the data, a letter from former NHTSA Administrator Norman Mineta to state governors warning that hands-free cell-phone use is no safer than manual operation of the devices was released.

NHTSA resisted a year-long attempt by the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen, another watchdog group, to gain access to the data, but a court order unsealed the research earlier this month.

"They knew there was a problem, but they didn't do anything about it," Margaret Kwoka, a lawyer who won the case for Public Citizen, tells Ward's. "I hope it's somewhat embarrassing for NHTSA."

In his letter to state governors, Mineta estimated Americans make upwards of 200 in-car phone calls daily and says a significant body of research worldwide indicates both hand-held and hands-free cell phones increase the risk of a crash.

"Indeed, research has demonstrated that there is little, if any, difference between the use of hand-held and hands-free phones in contributing to the risk of driving while distracted," he writes in the draft letter. "In either operational mode, we have found that the cognitive distraction is significant enough to degrade a driver's performance.

"We recommend that drivers not use these devices when driving, except in an emergency. Moreover, we are convinced that legislation forbidding the use of handheld cell phones while driving will not be effective since it will not address the problem.

"In fact, such legislation may erroneously imply that hands-free phones are safe to use while driving," Mineta says.

General Motor Co. provides hands-free calling through its OnStar subsidiary, billing the option as one of its most valued features. OnStar has more than 5.5 million subscribers.

"Because of our commitment to safety, we continue to evaluate our services to minimize driver workload," GM says in a statement to Ward's.

"Work has been published that definitively shows that the use of our system carries no more risk than baseline driving. In fact, our services, including OnStar Turn-by-Turn Navigation, eNav and Hands-Free Calling, are specifically designed to minimize driver workload and keep drivers' eyes on the road and hands on the wheel."

Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, an industry lobbyist in Washington, says, "All auto makers agree that drivers should only use those features when it is completely safe to do so."

Last month, researchers at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute updated findings from their 100-car study conducted in 2006. The study filmed 241 drivers in 100 cars over the course of one year in the Northern Virginia/Washington area under real-world situations -- commuting to work, running errands, dining out and so on.

The institute reiterates what it concluded three years ago: True hands-free phone use, such as voice-activated systems, are less risky if they are designed well enough so the driver's eyes do not leave the road often or for long periods.

Tom Dingus, director of the VTTI, says true hands-free devices minimally increase driver distraction -- "even 1-button systems such as OnStar." But he thinks auto makers could do more.

"Driver distraction can be minimized," he tells Ward's. "Some of these new nomadic devices are in a class by themselves."

Dingus also suggests auto makers and device makers collaborate on a Bluetooth design where a device becomes hands-free once a driver steps into their vehicle. "That would reduce the risk by huge amounts."

The institute also concludes text-messaging should be banned for all drivers, and that the task has the potential to create a "true crash epidemic" if allowed to continue and grow in frequency. But Dingus says such a law would need to be awfully strict.

"To make an impact, it would have to be a primary law and it will have to have some teeth, along the lines of reckless driving," he offers. "But also remember, 12% to 15% of fatal crashes are from people with a license already suspended. You virtually have to lock some people up to keep them off the road."

jamend@wardsauto.com