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Hands-free is not necessarily risk-free

A road test of cell phone devices yields mixed results on convenience. Whether they boost safety still is being debated.

October 23, 2002|Kathleen Doheny | Special to The Times

As the number of cell phones in the United States grows and grows -- 138 million subscribers and climbing, according to the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Assn. -- so too have sales of hands-free devices.

But though the nice pictures on the packaging often imply that consumers might use them while jogging or shopping, let's get serious: Most cell phone users who buy these mobile headsets plan to multi-task as they drive.

Safety experts worry that drivers who use hands-free devices will see them as a panacea for the inattention and other driving troubles that plague cell phone users -- and caution that they definitely are not.

A University of Utah study released last year found that driving deficits were equal whether drivers used hands-free devices or stuck their cell phones right up against their ears.

Drivers who engaged in cell phone conversations missed twice as many simulated traffic signals as when they weren't talking, and took longer to react to the signals they did detect. Researchers conclude that it's not how the phone is used but the mental distraction of doing two things at once -- conversing and driving -- that causes the problem.

But those who work in the wireless industry say the array of hands-free devices will continue to multiply and their popularity will grow.

"Sales figures are hard to come by, because there are so many variations," says Ray Jodoin, group manager and principal analyst for wireless communication for In-Stat/MDR in Scottsdale, Ariz., a market research arm of Reed Business Information.

But he's confident for several reasons that the growth of hands-free cellular helpers will continue.

First, he said, "it will be legislated into growth." That could be slow growth he's talking about, though New York is the only state that prohibits hand-held cell phone use by drivers while allowing hands-free devices, according to Matt Sundeen, research analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

New Jersey is considering making hands-free devices mandatory, and other states have imposed restrictions such as requiring school bus drivers or younger drivers to use only hands-free devices.

In California, legislation addressing cell phone restrictions has failed several times to make it out of the Assembly Transportation Committee over the last two years.

Additionally, Jodoin said, hands-free devices are "increasingly being integrated into cars," mainly luxury models.

And some phone manufacturers are packaging inexpensive hands-free earpieces with their phones.

So faced with the inevitable, we picked several of these devices from the multitude of options out there and road tested them. They ranged widely in price and sophistication. The results:

* Body Glove Earglove Mini (About $20; [800] 945-4545; is for fashionista motorists.

A one-touch button in the earpiece lets you answer, end and mute calls. A trio of interchangeable earpiece clips -- in silver, blue and burnt orange -- is included.

Road test: Sound quality is acceptable, but the earpiece is pure torture.

* Body Glove Earglove (About $25; [800] 945-4545; www is a larger and more comfortable version of the mini. Three interchangeable neoprene earpiece covers are included.

Road test: Sound transmission and pickup are OK, and the padded ear hook makes wearing it while driving a lot more comfortable than the mini version.

* Jabra EarBud Lanyard (About $20; [800] EAR-2230; is a combination earpiece and phone holder that allows the phone to hang from your neck. Before inserting the ear bud, you pick from an assortment of ear gel pieces (small, medium or large, for use in either ear), depending on the size of your ear canal.

Road test: Microphone pickup is good and the earpiece, if sized correctly, is truly comfortable. The lanyard seems a little flimsy, but the phone stays in place.

* Jabra EarBoom Winder (About $35; [800] EAR-2230; www.jabra .com) is billed as a tangle-free system. The retractable cord is stored in a black device about half the size of a pager, which clips to your belt, purse or pocket. At the end of the cord are the mini-boom microphone and the ear bud. An assortment of ear gels is included. The cord retracts with the touch of a button.

Road test: Lives up to its tangle-free promise. The microphone picks up even if it's not positioned perfectly.

* Plantronics' Cellular Headset M206-N2 (About $45; [800] 544-4660; claims to have an "ultra-light, compact ear bud," but it isn't nearly as comfortable as the Jabra models' ear gel pieces.

Road test: The earpiece feels as if it is falling out of the ear much of the time. There's a one-touch answer/end call button on the cord, plus a volume control, and sound quality is good, but overall the unit isn't worth the price.

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