DEARBORN, MI – Using handheld devices such as cell phones or iPods while driving is less dangerous than commonly believed, Ford Motor Co. research indicates.

Since 1995, cell phone subscriptions have skyrocketed from 28 million users to 270 million. But during that time period, auto fatalities have declined, says Louis Tijerina, technical specialist-Ford Research and Advanced Engineering.

The seemingly contradictive data can be explained by differentiating the ways handheld devices are used while driving, Tijerina explains.

The data suggests “it’s looking away from the road scene that creates highway safety problems,” he says during a recent media event here. “The so-called cognitive distraction, or the ‘lost-in-thought phenomena,’ when you’re looking at the road scene but don’t see something, appears to be a smaller part of the problem than previously believed.”

Tijerina says some researchers ascribe the drop in fatalities to improved vehicle safety.

“But what safety technologies are we talking about? Center-mounted (brake) lights that came out in the mid-1980s were supposed to reduce rear-end crashes by 50%,” Tijerina says. But U.S. Department of Transportation research suggests a decline of 3% to 5%.

And antilock brake technology, once heralded as the next great step in automotive safety, has had a “net-zero effect on crash rates” in the U.S., he says.

Not only is cognitive distraction not an issue, it may actually benefit drivers in some cases. According to a study conducted by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, talking on a cell phone while driving can actually increase mental alertness during long monotonous trips.

And there are other benefits to taking a long a cell phone while driving, the study says, including “preventing unnecessary trips, providing parental piece of mind, and conveying emergency details.”

To reap the benefits of in-vehicle cell-phone usage while avoiding the pitfalls, Tijerina suggest’s Ford has the perfect solution with its Sync multi-media communications system.

Sync, developed in conjunction with Microsoft Corp., allows for hands-free calling and text messaging, all but eliminating the need for motorists to take their eyes off the road.

The text-messaging feature is especially beneficial, as reading texts requires drivers to take their eyes off the road longer than many other tasks. Ford has yet to perfect voice-to-text technology, but offers 10 “canned” responses drivers can choose from to answer a text message hands-free, says spokesman Alan Hall. “The voice recognition technology isn't robust enough yet for a satisfying consumer experience,” he says of the voice-to-text system the auto maker currently is researching. Citing data gleaned from a study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. and Virginia Tech, Tijerina says a visual-manual task such as dialing a handheld device raised the risk of a crash or a near-miss by a factor of 2.8.

And when researchers compared driving behavior with simultaneous periods of driving while talking or listening to a handheld device, there was “no statistical difference.” It also was observed that looking away from the road for more than two seconds within a 6-second period prior to the first critical event of a crash, raised risks by a factor of about 2.25, Tijerina adds. “It is a rare case when a crash occurs when a driver’s eyes are on the forward roadway, regardless of any other cognitive demand they may be involved in.”

With data supporting Sync’s effectiveness in promoting safe driving behavior, Ford has thrown its support behind a proposed nationwide ban on in-vehicle texting with hand-held devices.

An internal survey commissioned by Ford shows the public favors a ban. According to the online survey, conducted Sept. 18-21, 86% of U.S. drivers believe hand-held texting while driving is “very dangerous” and 93% support a nationwide ban.

At the same time, only 42% of respondents believe drivers would stop texting behind the wheel if the practice was banned. However, more than 75% believe there would be more compliance if hands-free or voice-activated technologies were widely available.

Hand-held cell-phone use and/or texting currently is prohibited in 18 states, Ford says.

And while some suggest an outright ban on in-vehicle cell phone-use, whether hands-free or not, Tijerina argues it’s not a practical solution.

According to another Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, the annual benefit gained by eliminating crashes caused by cell phone use would amount to $43 billion in savings. However, the value of the eliminated calls would also amount to $43 billion.

“The $43 billion referred to is revenue, not monetized versions of the value of not going out on a trip or not speeding because you think your child is exposed, or the value of not getting drowsy,” Tijerina says.

bpope@wardsauto.com