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Driving Under the Influence of Facebook

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood may not be friending General Motors -- and certainly not at 60 miles an hour. Just as LaHood's annual conference on combating distracted driving was about to start, GM's OnStar announced it was developing ways to let you update your Facebook page from your car with voice commands. Secretary LaHood's response: "Let's put safety before entertainment." In television interviews he said he thought Facebook in the car was a bad idea.

GM's push to make sure drivers can instantly respond to comments on their Facebook pages comes despite federal statistics showing that nearly 5,500 people died last year in accidents blamed on distracted driving. (Those numbers include not only texting and cell phone calls while driving but also old-fashioned low-tech distractions such as reading maps or eating.) In a statement, GM said: "OnStar is committed to keeping our nearly six million subscribers safe while on the road. We also understand that staying connected is important to many of them." OnStar, a subscription service ($199 a year or $299 with navigation) is principally a safety and security aid with live operators who call 911 if they detect your car has crashed and can open your car remotely if you are locked out.

GM's push toward a Facebook connection -- still in development -- is a move toward catching up with Ford's popular SYNC system, which allows a driver to make phone calls or play music with voice commands. Now SYNC -- which is especially popular with younger buyers -- has been updated with extra features, including access through MyFord Touch. (See details below from our preview of the new technology). You could in fact go directly to your Facebook page now from a new 2011 Ford Edge with the mobile wireless connection of MyFord Touch. But you would have to stop the car and open your laptop or iPad. By next year, some Fords will read Twitter feeds to you, but you cannot respond.

The auto companies argue that voice commands make cell phones and MP3 players safer. "Our research and third-party research supports that the most dangerous distractions inside the car are those that take the driver's eyes off the road and hands off the steering wheel," says a Ford spokesman . "That's why we have introduced voice recognition as a safer solution for using mobile devices inside the car." But safety advocates say devices commanded by voice can still be distracting. "With cell phones, not only the dialing but the conversation itself is part of the distraction, " says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Thirty states have banned texting while driving and eight states prohibit hand-held cell-phone use by drivers, suggesting that the distracted driving debate will continue. In fact, research just released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows an increase in accidents in states with texting bans. Researchers believe this is because drivers ignore the ban but try to hide their phone while texting -- taking their eyes well off the road.

In the meantime, MoneyWatch got a look last week at what you can do right now with MyFord Touch in a 2011 Ford Edge. In addition to the Edge and Lincoln MKX SUVs, the new system will be available in the redesigned 2011 Ford Explorer (See: What to Look for in Mid-size SUVs) and the small-car 2012 Ford Focus.

Ford says its engineers have added to safety with a combination of control buttons on the steering wheel and display screens a driver can see with only a downward glance. My Touch features two 4.2-inch screens on either side of the speedometer so you can check information from radio settings to climate control without looking over to the eight-inch screen on the center console. Touches on the center screen and voice commands also control all settings. And giving voice directions does seem safer for tasks you would do anyway. You can say: "Make temperature cooler" instead of looking and reaching over to turn down the air conditioning. The system seemed to recognize voice commands more consistently than the last generation of SYNC.

Here is a look at some features of MyFord Touch, just recently available at dealerships. The system comes standard with the $33,220 Limited and $36,220 versions of the Edge, and is part of a $2,870 option package with the $30,420 SEL trim.

Wireless Internet By plugging in a USB mobile modem, a USB wireless card from AT&T, Verizon or other carriers or parking at a WiFi hot spot, you've got internet. (Such cards come with monthly service charges for connection -- $59.99 for one current Verizon plan, for instance.) Once you have the WiFi connection, passengers in the back seat can have internet access while in motion. Starting next year with the Ford Focus, internet pages will show up on the central navigation screen -- but only when the gearshift is in park.

Cell phones By plugging in your Bluetooth phone you can, as before, make calls with voice commands -- "Call Home" or "Call Bob" -- and talk on a hands-free call. MyFord Touch can also read text messages to you. (Sometimes the system is too smart for its own good, reading out "Smiley Face" for that icon.) You can respond with steering wheel buttons or voice commands in one of the preset responses such as "I'm driving. I will call you in a few minutes." This is certainly safer than thumbing out a text response on your phone while at the wheel. But it's still potentially distracting.

Music You can plug in your iPod or other MP3 player, as before, or access music on your smart phone with voice control: "Play U2." Voice commands also let you shift to radio -- "Find 98.7."

Navigation. The Navigation system readily worked with voice commands, finding addresses, displaying the map on the central screen and showing the next turn on the small screen next to the speedometer. Again, this seems safer than punching in navigation instructions while driving, but clearly not as safe as stopping entirely to set up the route.

Some features of MyFord Touch are just fun. Engineer Jennifer Brace, who was demonstrating the technology, had loaded a picture of her English bulldog Buttercup into the system and could call it up on the Navigation screen. The five-way steering wheel controls -- similar to what you would find on a device like a Kindle -- seem easy to learn. And the software is supposed to adapt to your voice as you use it more. The new technology certainly makes it easier, and probably a little safer, to stay connected in your car. But that won't put an end to questions about what drivers should be doing behind the wheel other than watching the road.

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