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Safety Group Says Even Hands-Free Systems Distract Drivers

You may have seen the commercials with Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning talking to the computer in his dashboard, telling it what music to play or asking what's on the grill for lunch. Infotainment systems are the latest rage in the auto industry, and they are helping manufacturers sell cars.

The voice-operated systems are supposed to improve safety by enabling drivers to make phone calls, send and receive email and use social messaging without taking their hands off the wheel. But the National Safety Council believes the gadgets distract drivers by shifting their focus from the road.

The organization cites research showing that voice-to-text infotainment features don't improve safety and can actually endanger motorists. Furthermore, NSC officials believe that the spread of in-car infotainment and communications devices could make dangerous practices routine behavior on the roads and cause more crashes.

Michigan already bans texting, reading and typing while driving. Yet a statewide survey shows 16.3 percent of motorists still text and email while they drive.

A 2013 survey by the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning found that 59 percent of the state's motorists talk on the cellphone, up from 56 percent the previous year. Worse, 31 percent of drivers said they looked at email and text messages, up from 17 percent from 2012.

Among drivers surveyed, 40 percent said they would feel unfit to drive after having two drinks in an hour's time. Ninety-six percent also said they would want to be wearing a seat belt during a crash, and 79 percent considered their driving skills better than average.

Yet many of them acknowledged that they're often occupied by technological gadgets while driving.

Michigan recorded more than 5,000 crashes caused by distracted driving in 2012, about 750 of which involved cellphones. Oddly enough, an analysis by MLive Media Group found the number of traffic crashes involving cellphones hit its lowest point in 10 years in 2012 as other types of distracted driving peaked.

The executive director of the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police believes that's because people know it's illegal to text and email, and they don't want to tell authorities what they were doing just before crashing.

All told, cellphone use and other distracted-driving behaviors were the third most common known driver condition in crashes, according to the group's study. A third of those cellphone and distracted driving wrecks involved drivers ages 16 to 21, and many were rear-end collisions.

Even as technology companies come out with hands-free devices in cars, the National Safety Council plans to encourage methods to disable non-driving related functions inside vehicles. As the council says, a motorist's attention should be on the road and nothing else.