Two and a half years into the crusade against distracted driving, automakers are equipping vehicles with new technology that might circumvent the 34 state laws that prohibit text messaging behind the wheel, which 95 percent of Americans say is dangerous.

The manufacturers say the new hands-free text-messaging systems will reduce the risk of distraction. Safety advocates aren’t so sure. And experts say it will require careful analysis to determine whether laws that ban drivers from sending and receiving text messages will apply to hands-free methods.

Vehicles are being transformed into mobile communications centers, with cellphones, DVD players, access to Facebook and Twitter, Global Positioning System devices, and satellite radio.

“Unfortunately, drivers are being encouraged to do everything but drive,” said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. “It’s a sign of the pressures of modern-day life to do 10 things at once. However, driving is a complex task, and our message continues to be that a singular focus is needed.”

The latest wrinkle is an advancement in Ford’s voice­activated Sync system, which is standard in most of the company’s 2012 models. Now, using a Bluetooth wireless connection with a cellphone, the vehicles can read text messages aloud. The driver can tap a touch screen to send one of 15 preset responses, including “I’m running a few minutes late,” “I can’t talk right now” and “I’m on my way.” BMW offers a similar system. Vehicles with General Motors’ OnStar will read text messages and Facebook statuses to the user and transcribe spoken messages into text or Facebook messages.

The demand for all this comes, in part, because the amount of time Americans spend stuck in traffic has more than doubled since 1982, to an average of 34 hours a year. The Texas Transportation Institute determined that drivers in the Washington area have it worst, with an average of 74 hours lost in traffic each year.

Wade Newton of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers says carmakers are trying to respond with the safest possible technology.

“When a motorist is driving down the road and a cellphone rings and they answer it, they’re giving us a message that that’s important to them,” Newton said.

Many automakers have integrated buttons that once were on the dashboard — radio and cruise controls, for example — into the steering wheel in hopes of keeping drivers’ hands there.

“What a text message is and what’s hands-free is always subject to debate,” Newton said. “They’re tough questions, and that’s why I think you’re seeing automakers move to this integrated system that helps a driver do this safely.”

Legality and safety

When states began banning text messaging, it didn’t seem to need a great deal of definition; it was using a handheld device to tap out a message and to read messages from others. Now states will have to scrutinize their legal language to decide whether hands-free systems elude their definition and intent.

“This is another example of technology changing faster than laws can keep up,” Adkins said. “Just a few years ago, texting wasn’t even an option. Now we have this new option for voice activation. To date, there has been no independent research indicating a safety benefit to this technology, and until that benefit is demonstrated, we won’t be able to support it.”

Sending or receiving text messages on a handheld device is illegal in Virginia, the District and Maryland. But hands-free text messaging?

“If it were to be interpreted as illegal, enforcement would be nearly impossible,” Adkins said. “How could we say that it’s okay to use your phone hands-free but not text hands-free?”

A close reading of laws against text messaging in the District, Maryland and Virginia suggests that it would be legal for a device to read aloud an incoming text message. But the legality of sending a text message in the three jurisdictions might need to be decided in the courts or with further legislative action.

The D.C. law bans handheld use of phones and “devices” but allows for “initiating or terminating a telephone call, or turning the telephone on or off.” Is the touch of a key to send a pre-
programmed text response akin to that?

Maryland’s law specifies that a driver may not use a “hand held device . . . to write, send, or read a text message or an electronic message.” Application of Virginia’s law also seems limited to use of a handheld device to “read any email or text message” or to “manually enter multiple letters or text in the device” in response.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has been an unrelenting spearhead of the distracted-driving crusade, is unambiguous about his goal. He doesn’t support any form of texting or telephone conversation while driving. He urges people to put their phones in the glove compartment.

He said he has discussed the new technology with the heads of all domestic and foreign automakers.

“I’ve pointed out to them that a number of these technologies that they’re putting in these cars are distractions,” LaHood said. “I leave it them to figure out how . . . to be responsible for what kinds of technology they’re putting in and what impact they have on people’s driving ability.”

A call for research

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 5,474 people were killed and an estimated 448,000 were injured in 2009 in accidents that involved distracted driving. NHTSA said that accounted for about 16 percent of traffic deaths.

A survey done this summer on behalf of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that 95 percent of drivers consider text messaging while driving a serious threat and that 87 percent support laws prohibiting it.

Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said more research is needed before conclusions can be drawn about the safety of new communications technology such as hands-free texting.

“Does it really make it safer, or does it encourage people to use these things more often and create a greater likelihood of distraction?” he said. “Even as all this new technology has been coming into vehicles, there hasn’t been a corresponding wave of crashes. It’s a conundrum that researchers are going to have to untangle.”