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Talking and driving? Go hands-free or pay up

Soon, the majority of  cell phone subscribers will have no choice but to use hands-free devices while driving.  Technology expert Paul Hochman recommends several devices that comply with existing and pending laws.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Two years ago last week, on Oct. 1, 2005, Connecticut invoked one of the nation’s first cell phone prohibition laws, making it a ticketable moving violation to drive a car while talking on a cell phone without also using a hands-free accessory.

Since then, more than 40 states have enacted some kind of cell phone restrictions, and Washington State and California (the biggest driving state in the union and widely considered a legal and regulatory bellwether) have laws scheduled to take effect in 2008. And not only is Connecticut contemplating a $500 fine for those caught text messaging while driving, they’ve banned cell phone use by drivers 18 and under completely.

Not that anybody is worrying about it. According to Harris Interactive, only 14 percent of cell phone users in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut say they use hands-free accessories.

No matter; soon, the majority of the 236 million cell phone subscribers (and of course the 44 million already affected by cell phone legislation in their respective states) will have no choice but to get hands-free devices, according to the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association.

There are essentially three ways to comply with these existing and pending laws:

Get a “Bluetooth” earpiece Bluetooth is a radio frequency language that many high-end electronics speak (not just phones and earpieces). For example, if your phone is Bluetooth-compatible, it will send a frequency that a Bluetooth compatible speakerphone will “see” and respond to.

The hands-free phone issues are straightforward. If your phone and your earpiece are “Bluetooth compatible,” they’ll talk to each other. The advantage: There are no wires. The disadvantage: It’s sometimes a complicated, multistep setup, and it sometimes produces less-than-ideal sound quality, to say nothing of expense.

Here are three great choices:

  • Parrot Minikit: An incredibly easy-to-use, easy-to-set-up portable speakerphone device that “pairs” with your phone in seconds. The MInikit is about the size of a deck of cards and clips to the sun visor of your car. Its internal microphone catches your voice as you speak, and its speakers allow you to hear any call coming in. Its built-in voice-recognition software even lets you phone home, just by saying “Home.” The volume knob lets you adjust a call’s volume naturally, without touching your phone. If the call is private, just press the Minikit’s green button, and the call is transferred to your handset. Press the green button again, and you’re back on speaker. It has 10 hours of talk time and 275 hours of standby time. MSRP: $89
  • Bang & Olufsen Ear Set 2: Instead of a speakerphone, the Danish hi-fi company Bang & Olufsen has created a high-end Bluetooth earpiece, which has two microphones (vs. the industry standard’s single mic) whose 30-millimeter separation and sophisticated software cancel out most wind noise so listeners (remember them?) can hear you clearly. The Ear Set 2 is not cheap, but its pedigree is in B&O’s well-known home theater speakers. In this case, the Ear Set 2’s design is essentially a miniature, closed-cabinet loudspeaker that tries to duplicate all the frequencies of a human voice. MSRP: $350
  • JAWBONE Hands-free headset: This Bluetooth headset quickly won awards at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), became AT&T’s fastest-selling headset and is now a featured item at the Apple store, all because of what you don’t hear when you listen to them. Specifically, the Jawbone has a high-tech signal processor, a chip that interprets the sound waves it “hears” through the microphone. The processor actually removes all sound that isn’t your voice or the caller’s voice, even if your environment is noisy (traffic, children talking). MSRP: $119

Wired cell phone earpieceYour second, and much less expensive, option is to get a wired earpiece that is connected directly to your cell phone. You just plug the earpiece’s headphone plug into the phone’s headphone jack, and you’re connected. The wired disadvantage: Wires can be annoying and/or obtrusive. The wired advantages: simplicity. Just plug it in to the phone and it works; and lower cost (often less than half the cost of Bluetooth); plus, portability (you can use it with your home’s cordless phone); and sound quality.

Here’s a great wired option:

  • PLANTRONICS MX250 Mobile Headset: Yes, Plantronics has been making headsets for astronauts for years, and yes, they make among the best Bluetooth wireless headsets in the business. But even they admit that Bluetooth is not for everybody, and they make a very low-tech but highly useful option: hard-wiring the headset to your phone. It’s easy. Just plug it in. The MX250 headset is inexpensive, sounds great to you and the listener and is well-designed: The pivoting boom matches your face shape and the microphone has a noise-canceling device that makes all the sounds around you virtually disappear, so you can hear and be heard. Even works with your home’s cordless phone, for hands-free cooking and toddler-chasing. MSRP: $29.

Integrated hands-free system
Your third option is to get an aftermarket Bluetooth device installed in your car or attached to your car (by you) that seamlessly allows hands-free telephone calls using one touch of your fingers, or even just your voice.

Of course, you can purchase a car with an integrated hands-free system. Car companies that offer this option include luxury brands like Audi and economy brands like Mini Cooper. Or you can buy a device that literally sticks to your windshield.

Both Parrot and TomTom make devices that can be added to your car later:

  • The Parrot 3200 LS-Color Plus is a Bluetooth device you have installed professionally in your car. For about $200 plus installation, it has a nice little color screen that lets you see who’s calling and allows you to adjust volume and other settings with a knob. It even knows to mute your car’s music when a call comes in.
  • The TomTom GO 720 not only allows you to pair it with your phone, it will read your text messages out loud and then return a call just by speaking to it. Incredibly easy to use and sets up in seconds. $499