As the National Safety Council turns the country's attention to distracted driving next week, the Ford Sync™ in-car communications and entertainment system continues gaining popularity as one of the most advanced answers yet to the distractions nearly 190 million Americans encounter as they talk on cell phones while driving.

A recent Nationwide Insurance Company survey found that more than 80 percent of mobile phone owners said they talk on the phone while driving, and 40 percent of teen and 20-something American mobile phone owners admitted to composing and sending text messages while driving. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) confirmed that distracted driving causes 80 percent of road accidents.

In light of mounting evidence that the nation's novice drivers are endangering themselves and others, the National Safety Council has designated June 9-13 "Distracted Driving Awareness Week," as part of National Safety Month (http://www.nsc.org/nsm/).

Ford is helping to reduce potential driver distraction through ongoing research and the development of hands-free, voice-activated technologies such as Ford SYNC™. The system was developed in part based on research from its state-of-the-art driving simulator that was used to examine the factors that lead to distraction. Ford, working with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, used this research to help develop distraction guidelines for new telematics and infotainment systems.

"Ford has highly trained experts using state-of-the-art research tools to help people stay focused on driving," says Susan Cischke, Ford group vice president of Sustainability, Environment and Safety Engineering. "We are confident that our efforts through research, education and innovation are helping drivers, particularly teens, to hone their driving skills while avoiding the risky behaviors that contribute to dangerous driving situations."

More than 161,000 SYNC-equipped Ford-Lincoln-Mercury vehicles have sold since the feature's introduction on the 2008 Ford Focus in October 2007. And the option's popularity continues to increase, with monthly sales tripling between December and May.

Virtual Testing, Real Solutions

As part of its effort to reduce risky driving behavior, in 2001, Ford became the first auto manufacturer in North America to invest in a full-motion-based driving simulator, so it could lead the study of driver reaction and behavior in a controlled, safe laboratory setting.

The company's driving simulator, Virtual Test Track Experiment (VIRTTEX), led to the development of the Driving Skills for Life (DSFL) program and played a significant role in establishing industry guidelines for the design and operation of telematics devices in cars.

In 2003, Ford published one of its first driver distraction studies based on VIRTTEX research that quantified drivers' failure to detect safety-relevant events while doing visual or manual tasks such as retrieving voicemail on a handheld cell phone. The study revealed much higher levels of distraction among drivers doing such manual and/or visual tasks compared with those using a hands-free, voice-activated interface.

Reducing distractions

In its work with the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, Ford has taken a substantial role in the development of driver-interface test methods and criteria to address driver focus and interaction with telematics and infotainment systems.

"Ford is committed to addressing driver distraction in empirical, research-driven ways and implementing our findings in active safety systems and advanced infotainment systems throughout our vehicle lines" says Dr. Louis Tijerina, Ford senior technical specialist.

Ford helped define and implement design guidelines for the maximum down-angle that visually intensive driver displays should be positioned as well as limits to the visual demand of tasks that might be done while driving, Tijerna added.

Virginia Tech's recently completed 100-car study followed 109 drivers for one year, including 43,000 hours of driving over two million miles, and found that manually dialing a handheld device (a task that requires looks away from the road) while driving was almost 2.8 times riskier than just driving. On the other hand, this real-world data revealed that talking/listening on a handheld device while driving was not statistically significantly different in risk than just driving.

Virginia Tech also reported that almost 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of all near-miss crashes occurred just after a glance away from the road.

"These real-world results strongly suggest that SYNC's voice-interface offers substantial advantages compared to manipulating a carried-in device to do the same task," Tijerna said.

The Alliance telematics guidelines and Ford's internal occlusion testing methodology (eyes-on/eyes-off) also proved instrumental in the development of Ford SYNC. Basically, any manual cell phone tasks on the SYNC system that can't be completed within two button clicks or within a few quick glances are locked-out when the vehicle is in motion, and can only be operated when the vehicle is parked.

"We took a conservative approach with SYNC," said John Shutko, Ford technical specialist in Human Factors & Ergonomics. "We reduced the number of manually operated options and optimized the system for voice control as the primary input for operation. The system is designed to keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road."