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U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is in Detroit today. He's there to speak with Ford CEO Alan Mulally about distracted driving. LaHood's self-described rampage against distracted driving has mostly focused on cell phone use in cars. But the secretary has also angered many people in the car business for criticizing infotainment systems, like OnStar and Sync.

As Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports, LaHood isn't the only one concerned about so many new high-tech distractions.

TRACY SAMILTON: Let's get one thing straight right away. We're quite capable of safely driving our cars while listening to the radio. So don't worry about that. But studies show that using a cell phone in the car is distracting. And so are a lot of other things, especially if they pile up.

Let's say you're driving and there's a kid in the back seat crying. That's distracting. If you remember "The Ed Sullivan Show," you can think of that as one plate spinning on top of a pole.

(Soundbite of circus music and applause)

TRACY SAMILTON: Let's say you're also late. That's another spinning plate. You're checking a map on your GPS for directions, and traffic is getting heavy: plate, plate. And if you get too many things going at once, those plates will start to fall.

Mr. PAUL GREEN (University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute): If your eyes are off the road, and your hands are off the wheel, that's a problem. And if your brain is engaged somewhere else, it makes it even worse.

SAMILTON: Paul Green is with the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Green and other safety experts have a new worry these days, known generically as infotainment systems.

Ford, for example, has a new technology that replaces manual control knobs with a computer screen, with icons that you touch with your fingertips. It can take a lot of glances away from the road and a lot of your hand leaving the steering wheel just to switch on the air conditioning.

David Champion of Consumer Reports says this system and others like it are too distracting.

Mr. DAVID CHAMPION (Consumer Reports): Actually, Ford now, I believe are having a tutorial that they put drivers through before they buy the car, which is ridiculous, really.

SAMILTON: Champion says voice commands have the potential to be less distracting. But if they don't work, it can be just one more spinning plate.

Ford officials declined to be interviewed about the so-called MyFordTouch system, saying driver distraction is an industry-wide problem. So we asked Dave Sullivan of AutoPacific to demonstrate in a Lincoln MKX by verbally requesting a specific song.

Unidentified Voice: Playing Song "Carve Your Name."

(Soundbite of song, "Carve Your Name")

SAMILTON: So it heard you wrong.

Mr. DAVE SULLIVAN (AutoPacific): It did not recognize the words "Back Door Man," which is a Sarah McLaughlin song. Instead it's playing "Carve Your Name" by the Nadas, a small Iowa band.

SAMILTON: So add infotainment systems to the growing list of distracting technology we use in our cars. But while we know that distracted driving kills people, about 5,000 last year, it doesn't seem to be getting any worse. There were about a half million accidents in 2010 due to distracted driving. It's a big number, a big problem, but not a growing problem.

Adrian Lund is President of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Mr. ADRIAN LUND (President, Insurance Institute of Highway Safety): People were distracted before, and they're still distracted, they're just distracted by different things, and they're crashing for slightly different reasons. More of them are cell phones, rather than changing a CD.

SAMILTON: But Lund and others are still worried that maybe we've hit the limit of our ability to handle distraction. And there's more in-car technology on the way. GM's Onstar may let drivers update their Facebook pages soon.

For now, the federal government is taking a wait-and-see approach when it comes to legislating distracted driving. Even Secretary LaHood is toning down the rhetoric, saying he wants to develop partnerships with car companies in his campaign against distracted driving.

For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton in Ann Arbor.

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