Drivers, start your hands-free devices


Did you pick up some thumb socks for Dad for Father’s Day? If not, you may want to put it on the list for an early Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or Yule present later this year, because Delaware lawmakers on June 22 passed a bill that bans texting or use of a hand-held cell phone while driving in the state. And with an expected signature from Gov. Jack Markell, the ban could become law at the end of the year.

The thumb socks? They’re a real product – a sort of “thumb cozy” – intended to prevent your teenage daughter or college-age son from texting while they drive. Other deterrents already available include GPS-based devices and software that actually deactivate cell phones while they are inside a car that is in motion.

But whether you go high-tech or granny-style, such devices could be the only thing that stops some young texting and phone addicts from committing a crime that goes beyond bad manners and excessive cell phone bills.

Since April, DoSomething.org has been producing the free pairs of thumb socks as part of a campaign to encourage younger drivers – those 25 or younger, specifically – to refrain from texting while driving.

Technically, they’re only available to those 25 or younger, but since everyone who asks for a supply gets two pairs, they could be the hot present for dads and grads come the fall, as 25 states already ban texting while driving and Delaware would become the seventh state to ban use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

(The City of Wilmington and Town of Elsmere already ban hand-held phones behind the wheel – though those bans would be superseded by the new state ban – and the use of cell phones by novice drivers and school bus drivers is already against the law in the First State.)

Two previous attempts to ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving died in the General Assembly, but state Rep. Joe Miro (R-Pike Creek Valley) said he persisted because he believes the law will make the roads safer. Miro and co-sponsor Rep. Darryl Scott (D-Dover) pointed to the existing prohibitions as an acknowledgement that the use of cell phones poses an unacceptable distraction.

The move brought praise from AAA Mid-Atlantic.

“Distracted driving – especially texting while driving – continues to play a significant role in car crashes,” said Jana L. Tidwell, acting manager of Public and Government Affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic. “Research clearly shows that our crash risk doubles when we look away from the road for two or more seconds.

“AAA Mid-Atlantic agrees with Rep. Darryl M. Scott, sponsor of the bill, that there is a need for passage of comprehensive legislation regulating the use of electronic communication devices while driving. HS 1 to HS 229 is a definitive first step in combating distracted driving in Delaware, by banning texting and the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.”

Many Delawareans also agreed, with a AAA Mid-Atlantic poll released in August 2009 indicating that 64 percent of Delaware motorists favored a ban on the use of all cell phones by drivers and that 63 percent said text messaging posed the greatest danger of all distracted-driving activities.

The same poll, however, found that only 2 percent of Delawareans considered drivers using hands-free cell phone devices to be the greatest danger, suggesting momentum might not be there for a total ban on cell phone use behind the wheel.

Some, though, have suggested that a ban on hand-held cell phones while driving doesn’t go far enough – not directly addressing the distracted driving that studies shows occurs when the driver is engaged in conversation, whether on a hand-held phone or a hands-free one, or, indeed, in conducting other tasks not related to driving.

A study of hospital patients conducted by staff at the George Institute for International Health at the University of Sydney in Australia, the U.S.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Injury Research Centre at the University of Western Australia, published in July 2005, concluded, “Using a hands-free phone is not any safer” than using a mobile phone held to the ear.

Overall, a driver’s use of a mobile phone up to 10 minutes before a crash was associated with a fourfold increased likelihood of crashing – a figure already established in study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1997.

Both studies concluded that the risk was raised irrespective of whether or not a hands-free device was used. Delaware’s law, however, will still permit hands-free phones to be used while driving.

It was a statistic Catherine Rossi, then AAA Mid-Atlantic’s manager of Government and Public Affairs, cited in response to the City of Wilmington’s ban in August 2009.

“We have a myriad of driving distractions and electronic devices are the greatest distraction behind the wheel right now,” Rossi said. “Yet, drivers shouldn’t be lulled into thinking that hands-free devices are safer.”

Rossi later noted, “Studies show that hands-free cell phones are just as distracting as hand-held because the conversation is the distraction. The more emotional the conversation, the greater the distraction.”

Law offers exemptions, fines

While the thumb cozies are an obvious and good-humored deterrent to texting – or, depending on your phone, even dialing a cell phone while driving – it’s more likely that the $50 fine for first-time violators ($100 to $200 for repeat offenses) will be the biggest deterrent for most drivers.

Under House Substitute 1 to House Bill 229 – “Texting and Hand Held Cell Phone Ban,” no motor vehicle points will be assessed for a violation, and the violation won’t be made a part of a person’s driving record, but the law would make texting or using a hand-held phone behind the wheel a primary offense – meaning police could stop a motorist for that violation alone, without needing to first observe another law being broken.

Violations would also not be limited to cell phones. The ban applies to drivers using any “electronic communication device” while their vehicle is in motion. That includes a cell phone, personal digital assistant, any electronic device with mobile data access, laptop computer, pager, broadband personal communication device, two-way messaging device, electronic game or portable computing device.

The ban also applies to a full range of the activities for which one might use such devices, including when the person dials or punches a phone number on, talks into or listens on an electronic communication device; or holding such a device while viewing or transmitting images or data; playing games; composing, sending, reading, viewing, accessing, browsing, transmitting, saving or retrieving e-mail, text messages or other electronic data; or engaging in a call.

There are a few exemptions, including police and emergency workers engaged in performance of their official duties; people operating or driving farm tractors, farm trucks and farm equipment; and FCC-licensed amateur radio operators.

There is also an exemption for those reporting a fire, a traffic accident, a serious road hazard, or medical or hazardous materials emergency or the operator of another motor vehicle who is driving in a reckless, careless or otherwise unsafe manner or who appears to be driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs or any other crime.

Joe Driver gets a pass when using a hands-free electronic communication device for a call or when activating or deactivating hand-free equipment.

Myriad of choices in hands-free devices

That loophole is likely to spur the purchase of many a hands-free solution for existing cell phones and others finally learning how to use the hands-free calling features already built into their phones.

So, what’s the solution for you and your phone?

• Wired hands-free headsets: If you want to go inexpensive and low-tech, pull out the little earphone speaker set that likely came with your cell phone. It probably has a single earpiece with a little blob of plastic somewhere along the cord that houses a small microphone.

Plugged into your cell phone, a wired headset will allow you to hear your callers and for them to hear you, almost as if you had the phone held up to your ear – which is the big calling no-no under this new law.

If you don’t like the quality of the included wired headset, or if you’ve lost yours, you can pick up one that’s most likely of better quality for as little as $10.

• Wireless headsets: If you hate being tethered to your phone, the answer may be a device that has become nearly as ubiquitous as the cell phone itself – the Bluetooth headset, which often perches in one ear and may feature a tiny boom microphone to make it easier for your callers to hear you without a microphone on a trailing wire.

These are the devices you have historically belatedly discovered on your fellow shoppers after you have just decided they’re talking to themselves in the toilet paper aisle, with brand names such as Jabra and Plantronics, along with well-known names in other types of cell phone devices, like Motorola and Nokia.

The configurations are many: those that perch on the ear, those that rest inside the ear canal and stereo headsets that range from petite and pretty to massive and muscular. As with a set of headphones you might use for your favorite music-playing device, the ideal selection is a personal one, based on personal preference, style and comfort.

Depending on your phone and headset, a Bluetooth headset can be used to dial a call using voice recognition and the touch of a single button, or answer one, as well as controlling music playback from your phone’s built-in music player and adjusting the volume – hopefully, while you’re seated at your desk and not behind the wheel, since listening to music with headphones while driving is yet another safety no-no.

• Wireless speakerphones: While the in-car speakerphone is a tried-and-true device, the most recent wave of them take the concept to a new level, using Bluetooth technology so that you can place your speakerphone on your car’s visor, on the steering wheel or anywhere you find convenient.

Many of these devices – like their headset counterparts – will also use voice-recognition to dial contacts in your phone’s address book, or simply by reading off the number you want to call.

Ford’s Sync system, and others following it its wake, has integrated the speakerphone into the car, allowing it to operate as your phone device, radio tuner or music controller, and more – without the added distraction of taking your hand off the wheel.

• Along with these more standardized devices, a myriad of unique Bluetooth devices is now being released that take hands-free well beyond the headset and speakerphone.

The Zomm ($80) was the hot device at many of last year’s electronics shows. The puck-like one-button device is small enough to dangle on your keychain but operates as a combination speakerphone, wireless phone tether and emergency alarm. You can not only answer your incoming calls but ensure you’ll never wander too far from your phone with a distance-monitoring proximity alarm and have one-touch access to 911 should something really alarming happen.

This year, it’s a page from Dick Tracy, as the Atomic9 Bluetooth speakerphone wristband ($99) comes on the market, offering a Bluetooth speakerphone, caller ID, voice-activated placing and answering of calls, proximity-alarm tethering and streaming of music wirelessly from your phone to your wrist (again, assuming your phone is compatible).

The sky seems to be the limit on these devices.

• Finally, most likely the cheapest and easiest way to go hands-free is probably already built into your cell phone or cell phone service.

Voice recognition for dialing is a feature that’s increasingly common in today’s smartphones, while it also exists as an optional service with many carriers. Push or hold down a button on your phone, and the wonders of modern technology can have you in touch with your desired party in a matter of moments, all but hands-free. One finger to dial, and another to hang up – that’s it.

Additionally, once you’ve dialed your party using your voice, switch over to a phone’s built-in speakerphone, and you don’t have to hold the phone to your ear – a dead giveaway for police scouring the roadways for scofflaws come January.

Depending on your phone and environment, you could sound like you’re in the next room, or across a crowded dining hall, but as long as you’re not driven to distraction, the speakerphone option won’t get you a ticket.

On a final note – one more option for how to deal with cell phone use while driving under Delaware’s new law: Make your car a phone-free zone. That’s Oprah Winfrey’s new call to arms, under the weight of a show full of family members impacted by tragedies that occurred when a driver was texting or calling from behind the wheel.

While this is a day of instant gratification, with text messaging, e-mail, Internet and calling at your fingertips – on the road and otherwise – the choice is still there to simply wait until you’re no longer driving to look at that message or return that call. Ask yourself: Is it really that important? Is it really worth the risk to your life or someone else’s?

If nothing else, the state’s new law is a wake-up call as to the risks of texting behind the wheel, and – to one degree or another – conversing there. From there, it’s every driver’s choice that will make the difference.