Yesterday, Ford announced its support of a federal law banning the use of handheld cell phones by drivers. It's the first automaker to do so, and as a result, it's received praise from advocacy groups. But the clever move also offers Ford some advantages in showrooms, too.
The "Safe Drivers Act of 2011" was submitted to the U.S. House of Representatives by Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY). If passed, it would create a federal law prohibiting the use of handheld mobile phones by drivers -- a law mirroring those that currently sit on the books in nine states and the District of Columbia. The bill forces individual states to comply with the national law within two years or forfeit 25% of their federal highway allocations.
Speaking in favor of the legislation, Ford's vice president of government affairs, Pete Lawson, said that the bill "represents a practical, commonsense approach to a national problem." To date, Ford appears to be the only major automaker supporting the bill.
On the other hand, General Motors spokesman Greg Martin has said, "[W]e're not certain what meaningful effect a federal ban would have at this time as these issues typically reside with state and local enforcement." (Someone might remind him of 1984's National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which served a similar function and came with comparable stipulations.)
Hold the phoneAs great as Ford's statements may sound to folks like Oprah Winfrey and Ray LaHood, there are at least four caveats to consider:
1. For starters, this isn't law yet -- not by a longshot. It was submitted by a Democrat in the Republican-controlled House, and there's sure to be lots of resistance -- especially from libertarians. who're prone to eschew speed limits and get riled up about light bulbs, much less restrictions on when they can chat on the phone. And even if the bill gains traction, there are a number of other problems facing Congress just now, like the question of raising the debt ceiling. Bottom line: we wouldn't be surprised to see McCarthy's bill tabled for a while.
2. There's no proof that hands-free calls are safer. A range of studies have made that point over the years, but a major whitepaper issued last week by the Governors Highway Safety Association made it even clearer: the call itself seems to be the primary distraction, not whether the driver is holding a phone in his/her hand. That's why the GHSA told states to postpone any new restrictions on handheld phones until further research is conducted.
3. Ford has something to gain from the bill's passage: greater interest in its Sync system. Sync allows drivers to link their phones with Ford's infotainment system so they can take hands-free calls. Ban handheld calls, and there's greater reason for Ford shoppers to invest in Sync. That probably explains why Lawson said, "Ford believes hands-free, voice-activated technology significantly reduces [the risk of an accident] by allowing drivers to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road."
4. Even if the bill fails, Ford wins. Simply by stating its support for the legislation, Ford comes out looking like an advocate for consumer safety. That's not to say that the automaker doesn't honestly care about the well-being of its customers, just that it's a great PR move.
What's ironic about Ford's support of the "Safe Drivers Act of 2011" -- especially in light of item #3 above -- is that Sync is partially responsible for Ford's recent tumble in J.D. Power's Initial Quality rankings.
If the bill passes and consumers do find themselves gravitating toward Sync, Ford will need to make the system more user friendly or risk sliding even further down the charts. It's like your grandmother used to say: be careful what you wish for.