10 Ways to Beat the New Hands-Free Laws

Resistance is futile.

On July 1, 2008, drivers in California and Washington will join those in states like New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in forced compliance with hands-free legislation that stipulates fines from $20 to $124 for driving while holding a cell phone. Other states are considering placing such rules on the books.

The laws state that drivers must use a headset or speakerphone while talking on the phone, but in recent years, headsets have acquired a nasty stigma. Depending on your point of view, Bluetooth headset wearers might either look like cyborgs, telemarketers or simply jerks.

If you already wear one, don’t take this personally. It’s just that some people have been holding out for as long as possible to avoid looking like unstable people that talk to themselves.

But the fact is that all cell phone-owner drivers are going to have to face reality at some point and buy a hands-free device. It’s not just the law — it makes safety sense, too. Under these new laws, dialing, looking to see who is calling, and pressing a button to answer or make a call are permissible by law, but holding an actual conversation with phone to ear is not. Devices with voice dialing or text-to-speech abilities can eliminate even these unsafe driving behaviors.

We’ve picked out ten Bluetooth devices that aim to minimize the obtrusive ugliness associated with this type of gadget: five we have tested, while the other five will likely be available soon. We’ve evaluated them for battery life, sound quality, and most importantly, comfort. If you’ve spotted an appealing hands-free device that we didn’t mention, please let us know in the comments below.

Map courtesy Plantronics

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  • RichardW
    The Toyota Prius has a BlueTooth cell phone option that connects your cell phone to the car's audio system. There is a microphone built in to the dashboard. Works great.
  • RichardW
    The Toyota Prius has a BlueTooth cell phone option that connects your cell phone to the car's audio system. There is a microphone built in to the dashboard. Works great.
  • Anonymous
    such laws are total BS. Some drivers that cant manage to put driving
    first ruin it for the rest of us. When Im doing something distracting
    the first thing I think of is how I must compensate by concentrating that much harder on the road. hands free laws make no sence for good drivers. I could almost see it(but not really) if it was applied to
    standard transmission vehicles. The were many distractions just as bad as phones(or worse) before they came along. Its not the phones that are at fault, its the drivers. Holding it to your head is the easiest part. Some wiseguy researchers test a few people under what conditions I dont know, and they come up with idea that its some big hazard. I wasnt part of those tests. If you talk to me on the phone when Im driving it sounds like Im distracted and not really paying attention to you because Im not-Im paying attention to the road!
    If you tested my reaction time would be similar. And while we are on the subject, reaction is a moronic catch-phrase that these researchers like to throw around. Your reaction time is just one little tiny tiny part of driving safe. Tou can have reactions twice as slow as a 16 yo and be 10 times as safe. Driving defensively, leaving plenty of space, expecting everyone else to mess up at any time etc etc is what makes you drive safe, not so much this
    myopic aspect called reaction time. The whole movement is a sham since is focuses on that instead of encouraging overall safe habits and attitudes, which is REALLY WHATS LACKING. It's education that should be stressed not banning holding phone to ear. I acknowledge my driving experience (41 yo) counts for something but anyone can drive and hold a phone it they have thier attitude right.
    They need to keep those drivers ed gruesome film images in their head.
  • Anonymous
    I can't believe anyone could honestly think using a cellphone while driving _isn't_ a huge hazard. It is, period. No debate, ne qualifications, nothing. Anything that distracts you from driving, or prevents perfect response to emergency conditions is a hazard for drivers, and more importantly, all people, animals, and property in their way. Driving on public roads is a privilege granted by the state, NOT a right. When you can't be trusted to drive safely, your privilege is limited to ensure the safety of all other people...welcome to a democracy.

    And no matter how good a driver you are, there's always going to be situations out of your control that can and will lead to an accident. Driving while using a cellphone absolutely increases EVERYONE'S likelihood of being unable to avoid an accident if such a situation arises.

    Oh yeah, and one more thing in regards to the author's summary...

    "But the fact is that all cell phone-owner drivers are going to have to face reality at some point and buy a hands-free device."

    Um, how about all those people who know better than to use a cellphone (hand-free or not) while driving? Seriously, I understand the desire, and all the rationalizing people do, but it wasn't long ago that you weren't able to make phone calls from the car...it's not like it's that hard to just wait. I have NEVER felt "Oh my god, I really wish I had made that call 5 minutes sooner from my car".
  • Anonymous
    This style article from Tom's is annoying. Why is there no summary that compares the sound quality and other features in a table? Do you guys really expect that I am going to plow through ten write-ups as a casual browser? I look for a summary and conclusions and if one or two items sound interesting I will likely go back and read the details on those.
  • Tomsguiderachel
    Thanks for your comment, ee. We will take it into account going forward. As you know, Tom's Guide is designed for a different type of tech enthusiast than Tom's Hardware, so, naturally, we are experimenting with different article formats. Your feedback is appreciated!
    --Rachel Rosmarin, Editor of Tom's Guide
  • Anonymous
    I agree with ee...a comparison page would be nice. I have the Blueant Supertooth light, which is the predecessor to the one you review in the article. I love it. Had one in my wife's car for 6 months and just had to recharge it for the first time. Sound is decent and the price is just $66 on amazon with free shipping right now. No bothersome text-to-speech crap either....
  • Anonymous
    I would be more interested in a review of Bluetooth GPS or Bluetooth car radio setups. I also would like to see how well they work with different phones. All of the units I have tried with windows mobile 6 or 6.1 phones fail to connect reliably (No connection,recieve no send, send no recieve), this is true even If reinitiate the pairing after getting in the car.
  • gorbag
    As someone who has performed driving distraction research in past years, I have to agree that these laws mandating hands-free phones are silly. The primary distractor in using a phone in vehicle is cognitive - you are paying attention to the conversation instead of the driving situation. We found the impact was as strong as cataloging your CD collection while driving - equivalent to physical distractors.

    To "Annoyed": many folks who self-judge themselves as being able to handle distraction actually perform as poorly as anyone else in controlled experiments. It's of course possible that you are the one exception in 10,000 individuals, but public policy should not be exception based.

    Better methods to improve driver control behavior would not be ones that many would accept - a separate sealed compartment for the driver (to avoid distraction by passengers), induction of stimulants (to improve attention and reaction time), and cognitive workload monitoring (to maintain appropriate levels of performance over time, fatigue detection, etc.).

    Simpler and more appealing, perhaps, would simply disable use of a phone in a moving vehicle (you could use it while stopped); we found in general passenger distraction to be less than that of a phone participant because they shared contextual cues. In addition, food, loose materials that move while driving, etc. would also have to be banned (and at least according to a somewhat discredited AAA study were a larger influence on physical distraction of the driver than, e.g., holding the phone).

    And even better would be just to make the road as well as the cockpit more predictable. Sealing roads in vacuum tunnels should do the trick ;-).

    Frankly, once autonomous vehicle technology gets to the point of mass reliability, I can easily see that being mandated, with manual control eliminated. In general, driving as it exists today is too difficult a task for humans to perform reliably.
  • Anonymous
    I would go further than saying having a phone in hand is distracting to the best of drivers; and say even a headset is a dangerous distraction. I say this as someone who has been driving with a headset for about 5 years. I love my Jawbone 1.0, mainly because most of my cars are convertibles and my voice comes through crystal clear. However, I am all to conscious of the danger of splitting my concentration in too many directions. I have been racing for 5 years and driving for 15 years and I have no tickets on my record, so I would say I qualify as a safe, expert driver. But, even so, I would say no one is a completely safe driver when they are talking on the phone, irregardless of whether their hands are occupied of not.
  • Anonymous
    Gorbag-I have to acknowledge many drives allow themselves (key concept) to get distracted by cellphones. So I guess its fair to say that my comments only apply to those of us capable of treating a phone the same as a gearshift. I doubt I'm one in 10,000 but I cant say for sure. Maybe we are rare. But I know how to propery prioritze non-novel distractions. Anyone including me can be distracted by something that we're not prepared for. Cellphone use is not unexpected. I think everyone could be properly trained to use
    them with no detrement to safety. But that is unlikely to happen since its easier and cheaper to just ban their use. The really pathetic and depressing thing about this, as you deftly noted, is that hands free doesnt address the problem of cognitive distraction. The hand-free stipulation is yet another moronic knee-jerk shallow reaction on the part of law makers (likely politically motivated). Again I say: you'd be suprised how safely you can drive under potentially distracting conditions when you keep close and present in your conscious mind the heinous and urgent danger to yourself and others driving a car is to begin with. And I insist again, cell phones are not necessarily any more distacting that billboards, hot chicks, the fries in your lap, or a spouse next to you. It is NOT the distractions that are the danger. It is drivers that dont
    subordinate them that are dangerous. I say this again because its important, and its true. I wouldn't argue that removing some distractions might not reduce accidents. But doing that is an arbitrary and mostly pointless endevor. And you could reduce accidents much more by instead holding drivers to a higher standard of competence. We could condence a lot of important experience and training into focused sessions in simulations. (they could probably even be our PC's)
  • Anonymous
    to expound: one of the most important things about experience is the development (hopefully) of better judgement of different driving conditions and environments. No one seems to cover this vital stuff.
    I mentioned before when I talk while driving I do a poor job of talking. Sometime I ask them to hold on if something is happening that I know from experience can be dangerous. Or I might just check out entirely from the conversation an then later apologize. On a devided highway with fenced easments with very light traffic on a sunny day I might sound pretty normal. But if its pouring rain during rush hour on a two lane I might just say I'll call you when I get home. (and degrees of this behavior in between). To restate my whole point and reason for being so vocal- this whole idea that phones are the problem is actually a dangerous concept because it
    take attention away from the actual problem-drivers and an infrastructure that has failed to adapt to the new technology.
  • Anonymous
    gorbag- I assume the on the phone tests are set up to measure reaction to an unexpected event with and without using phone.
    I can see potential for study design flaw but I dont argue that
    many people get distacted. I know reaction time is used since its
    an objective measurement. But I wonder if an effort is made to gauge
    general attentiveness to potential danger ahead, which is what I insist is more important. shaving a 1/10 of a second or two off your
    reaction aint squat if you let yourself get in the wrong place at wrong time at the wrong speed. Thats what driving safely is really about. As I said before I think reaction time is a total hype
    catch phrase that's mostly only relavant in drag races. So called experts like to convert reaction time in distance on the ground and say it could make the difference between a wreck or not. Maybe so but only if you put your car in an unsafe attitude to begin with. So I strongly disagree with them. I say they are missing the point and filling everyone's head with concepts that are of secondary relevance. They make it sound like cellphone distractees get into accidents because they reaction a fraction slower. HOGWASH. Distractees CAUSE accidents. But I think they mention that too (lol)
  • Anonymous
    gorbag, you said: "In general, driving as it exists today is too difficult a task for humans to perform reliably" comeon really?
    I think that belittles human potential. If all drivers took their
    task as serious as airline pilots AND THEY SHOULD, and were required to safely pass/train on computer simulations of dangerous and distracting conditions, with many various distractions including
    phone use, accidents would be lower than in history. I think that's
    a fair assumption. Why it probably won't happen I dont even savour to contemplate. Automated driving is an interesting thing that may
    eventually work, but is so complex and would require so much development of for example 'safe' parameters to program the behavior of the cars under differnt conditions etc. But maybe automated cars can be made to be as safe as the best human (and obbiously more reliable). It would take sensors as good as human, and judgement as good (that AI doesnt exist yet). Getting all that to work is no small order. I can see cars like that coexisting with manual drivers. I doubt we would ever want automatic only. Even the safety features would need to be optional.
    On rare occasions you may really need to hop a curb or drive over a bush. And you may need to ignore someone trying to block your path
    if you fear they intend harm.
  • Anonymous
    Echtogammut: please let me say more about how I can talk and drive
    as safe as just driving. Call it 'momentary feild evaluation' combined with 'verbal subordination'. Like preparing for any task while driving (like finding something in glovebox), I first check the road and imagine all possible developments until the next road check (like 2 or 3 sec later, it varies and I never measured it).
    So thats for answering the phone, dialing etc. While talking Im doint the same thing only my eyes dont leave the road. I stay aware of the diffence between my eyes on the road with at least frequently if not constantly (when required) thinking about what could happen/is happening, and just my eyes on the road with thinking too much about conversation. It took me a few times of realizing I was being dangerous (although luckily no close 'calls') to realize I had to adjust and treat calls as a continuous 'trip to the glovebox'. Nothing less will suffice, but it does work quite well. And I cant imagine, really, me being the only one doing this. And as I said I intentionally and perhaps even excessively let my verbal skill and attention to the caller suffer. I have neglected to say that I also
    regard calls in the car as mainly for brief convenience, not for any
    discussion of any length or depth. While I think even that could be done safely, its just not something that I personally choose to do.
    And if conditions are difficult I'll fatigue more quickly anyway and get off the phone. I recognize proper multitasking does take more effort. But I know a driver can be completely safe on the phone as long as the proper techniques and judgement is used, and all the relevant aspects of cognition sharing appropriate for conditions are
    learned. A supplemental trick to aid this behavior is to regard distractions like phone calls as THREATS. Imagine the phone call means road conditions just changed and a MACK TRUCK's in the oncoming lane, with a cyclist to on your right and potholes ahead. So for any given conditions, the call means you escalate the light traffic to medium, and heavy traffic means your
    dont really want to talk very long right now. Yeah Im one of those people that acutally always allows safe distance to car ahead whenever possible (and just about every other safety behavior I can think of). If that means a few novices are always filling the gap and I back off again, not my problem. I know my dropping back from the pack a few hundred yards on my 10 mile trip is meaningless. I think of intersections as places to miraculously avoid a terrible t-bone. BTW I talk on land lines whenever I can. Cellphone audio sucks by comparison. Think about how much more often you have to ask people to repeat themselves on cellphones. The companders they use jack up the background noise like crazy. They're a lot less audibly intimate and subtle than a decent land line phone.
    But of course I love my cellphone when no land line is around.
  • Anonymous
    one more thing: When you feel like, to yourself, in your mind, you are worrying excessively about accidents and obessing over every little (relevant) aspect of safety and equiptment when driving, trying to learn all you can about how to get to be and stay a safer driver, to the extent that you feel like if others knew how much of this is going on in your head you would be quite embarassed and thought of as some kind of geek...
    THATS when you know you are doing it right.
  • paw
    my older blue ant causes irritation when actually using the sun visor (ending up upside down on the wrong side usually and my wife and I do not agree on where best to place it) and at night the continuous blinking is annoying -sound is good though.

    I think it is far safer to answer the call on the handsfree and then leisurely find a quite spot to park and talk.

    My new carphone works through the stereo with a button on the steering wheel and is much better.

    I would be interested in updating the old car's cd player to a hands free, bluetooth, mp3 etc. all singing dancing sort of thing. Have you done any research on these?