Dear NTSB, please don't sterilize Siri and her friends

The NTSB wants a full ban on mobile technology use in the car, including hands-free calling. CNET Reviews Editor-in-Chief Lindsey Turrentine thinks a hands-free ban is the fastest way to neuter the technology that could make us all safer drivers.

Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (interior)
Many new cars like the Mitsubishi Lancer include optional hands-free systems, but you have to pay for the added safety. Mitsubishi

It's true: I could kill myself using Siri.

I have a car with a built-in hands-free system that I pair with my iPhone 4S while I drive. When I can, I use Siri over the Bluetooth audio speakers. Half the time, "she" doesn't understand me, or she tells me I have to unlock my phone before she'll help me. When Siri works as she should, as a wholly voice-controlled digital assistant that can send and respond to texts, call up maps, and take dictation, she's great. But I admit: interacting with Siri--even over my car's built-in speakers--is dangerous.

I could drift into another lane when I reach down to trigger Siri on my phone. I could crash into a tree while trying to unlock the screen to pull up a map.

The National Transportation Safety Board is worried about me and the millions like me who operate mobile devices from behind the wheel, and they want to stop our bad behavior. At a board meeting last week to discuss a 2010 deadly crash in Missouri, the NTSB made a radical recommendation: ban all portable electronic use in the car, even hands-free calling systems. The NTSB can't actually make this change, but it calls on the CEA, specifically, to neuter in-car tech. Here's one section of the recommendation:

To CTIA, The Wireless Association and the Consumer Electronics Association:
Encourage the development of technology features that disable the functions of portable electronic devices within reach of the driver when a vehicle is in motion; these technology features should include the ability to permit emergency use of the device while the vehicle is in motion and have the capability of identifying occupant seating position so as not to interfere with use of the device by passengers.

But wait, stop. Hit the brakes. Insert additional driving puns here.

This is not the right way to handle the problem. While pressure on legislative bodies and industry groups could lead to legal bans on behaviors that lead to distracted driving (texting, unlocking, fiddling with headsets), a full-on ban on even hands-free driving tech will ultimately halt progress in making technology like Siri better. And will consumers stop using their cell phones while driving? Mmm-hmmm. Maybe about as much as drinkers dried up during Prohibition.

I'm not alone in this opinion. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said yesterday that he wouldn't back a hands-free ban . Why would he? There are so many bigger distracted-driving fish to fry. Let's work on making the tech that will stop drivers from typing on their phones a reality.

The speech recognition landscape is just heating up. Siri has gotten a lot of attention, but there's a huge competitive market developing right now. Apps like Vlingo and Iris have passionate followings (watch a demo of how to drive safely with Vlingo below), and a number of CNET fans have surprisingly positive things to say about the built-in speech recognition on Windows Phone devices . Some apps, like Vlingo, have features that I haven't discovered in Siri yet, like the ability to constantly listen for your requests without any button-pushing.

A ban on hands-free calling might not totally kill speech recognition research--there are other uses for the technology, sure--but drivers everywhere would probably admit that they're more likely to use speech tech behind the wheel. No software company will want to flout law inspired by the NTSB's recommendation by investing heavily in speech-related research and development, for fear of triggering lawsuits. Apps like Siri and Vlingo could stall, remaining in the juvenile state they are in today--fun and sometimes handy, but not totally reliable or truly hands-free. (Siri, after all, still requires the push of a button or activation of the proximity sensor to launch, unless you're willing to jailbreak your phone.)

Not to mention the fact that an in-car, integrated hands-free system is usually an expensive option or an aftermarket hassle. If speech recognition and voice control go totally mainstream (maybe they have already, thanks to Siri), hands-free tech will get cheaper. Then we can all afford to choose a safer way to communicate behind the wheel.

So instead of stalling innovation with bans on the technology that will save us from our texting, flicking, button-pushing selves, let's double down on it.

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