On Tuesday, Washington will become the latest state to ban talking into a cellular phone while driving. California will, too. But not so fast...

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On Tuesday, Washington will become the latest state to ban talking into a cellular phone while driving. California will, too. But not so fast.

The law doesn’t prevent you from using a cellphone at all. Rather, if you want to talk while driving, you can’t use your hands. A headset, an earbud, a speaker add-on or even your car’s audio system can act as a substitute.

There’s already a ban in Washington on another behavior while driving: text messaging. It went into effect Jan. 1.

But the restriction on holding a cellphone while in motion has an exemption for typing in a number or looking up a name to place a call.

Technology always has a solution, and in the case of hands-free calling, you have a countless number of devices to choose from.

First, check your phone to see if a wireless headset is an option and what kinds of adapters might work with your phone. Next, choose whether you want to use a headset, an add-on car kit or built-in hardware in newer cars.

Unwiring your phone

The available hands-free options depend on the phone.

The vast majority of cellphones sold in the U.S. today include Bluetooth wireless networking, which is used to connect the phone to different external devices, like earpieces and headsets, as well as keyboards and mice.

With Bluetooth, you pair two devices, creating a lasting association. With headsets and earpieces, you typically establish this connection by holding down a button on the headset until a light on the piece starts flashing or remains solid.

Then, on a phone, you navigate through menus to find its Bluetooth controls, scan for nearby devices, choose the hands-free item and sometimes enter a short code, such as 0000.

Some phones now put Bluetooth pairing near the top of a menu hierarchy to make it easier to link up with audio equipment.

If your phone lacks Bluetooth, you might consider upgrading if you don’t have a contract or are near the end of it. Some carriers will release you from a contract in order to sign you up earlier for a new plan.

And some might pay your early termination fee at another carrier to entice you to switch to its service.

You can consult your phone’s manual — usually downloadable from your cell carrier or the manufacturer’s Web site if you don’t have a paper copy — to find out its Bluetooth capabilities. Or consult an online tool.

The Bluetooth SIG, the Bellevue-based trade group for manufacturers that use the technology, has a registry of all Bluetooth devices. Start at www.bluetooth.com/Bluetooth/Assembler.htm, and choose Based on Device to select your phone’s maker and model.

Bluetooth does drain your phone’s battery a bit faster than when you talk directly into the phone, so if you already run close to an empty charge in your normal usage, you almost certainly want to charge your phone while using it with Bluetooth in the car.

With your phone in hand, you still need to choose what approach works for you if you need to make calls either while driving or even using your car as a stationary office.


You can choose from a vast number of single-ear headsets. They range from $30 to $100 depending on battery life, features and whether they work for both music and calls or just calls.

Headsets come in a large array of styles. Some, like the Plantronics Discovery 925 (list $150, street $85), are designed to fit in the ear and disappear; it’s so stripped-down as to be nearly invisible to other people.

The others, like the Jabra BT5020 (list $80, street $40), shoot out a curved microphone and hang around the ear, requiring no support from the ear canal.

Still others specialize: The Aliph Jawbone Noise Shield (list $150, street $75) is designed to be both modish and to cancel out even the loudest external sounds.

And there’s the baroque, like the ear-covering Dragon from Callpod (list $100, street $60) that has a range of more than 300 feet, as opposed to the typical 30 feet; and the Jabra BT8010 (list $150, street $40), which comes in a pair for stereo listening, but which you can separate to use as a single earpiece in the car.

(My ears are a bit sensitive both to objects stuck into them and external noise, and that’s led me to choose around-the-ear headsets in the past.)

The downside of using headsets in a car is that you typically have to reach to the ear to press buttons for volume, answering a call or redialing (often a double press). This might become tedious or even dangerous while driving.

The headsets also obviously lack a display. You have to have your phone handy to see incoming call information, which can be another distraction.

You can purchase a dash- or windshield-mounting kit to keep your cellphone’s screen more easily visible.

Another complication can be in keeping the headset charged. Headsets typically cannot be used while being charged, and also typically don’t come with car chargers, although these can be purchased separately.

Some headsets have just a few hours of talk time, although most can idle for dozens to hundreds of hours on a single charge.

Car kits and telematics

You can bypass a headset and gain better sound and information by using either a car kit, a set of components for use in a car or, if you’re in the market for a car, finding a model that has integrated call support.

All of these products use noise reduction and filtering to avoid feedback and suppress car and traffic sound.

Car kits split into two kinds: installable kits that need power and a radio coupling typically handled by a professional installer; and visor kits that can be moved from car to car. Visor kits can also double as portable conference-table speakerphones.

Many of these kits can speak certain details, like numbers via Caller ID, and most have both integral speakers and radio hookups either wired in or connected via a low-power FM transmitter.

The Parrot MK6100 (list $300, street $270) is typical of the more advanced installable kits. The device consists of two pieces: a remote control that mounts on the steering wheel and provides call and music-playback controls; and a display that shows incoming calls, contains two microphones and allows you to select from your address book.

The display is wired in and allows music through a separate music player using the Parrot or the car’s receiver to be muted or paused when calls come in.

Because the Parrot’s main features are powered by the car, the remote control on the steering wheel doesn’t require a frequently recharged battery.

For visor kits, Motorola MotoRokr T505 (list $140, street $95) has most of the best traits: It clips on, has a built-in speaker or can send sound to an FM radio, and automatically finds the best empty FM station by pressing a button.

The BlueAnt Supertooth 3 (list $130, street $95) lacks the radio integration but can read Caller ID numbers, speak names from your address book and allow you to pick up a call by saying, “OK.”

Integrated Bluetooth calling is part of a car’s telematics systems, a term that encompasses all the information appliances tied into a car, such as a GPS navigation system.

With integrated calling, the phone pairs with the car, controls are built into the steering wheel and a microphone is typically built into the visor.

These systems are typically available as a purchase option, factory or dealer-installed, and can add a few hundred dollars to the price of a car. Some systems add voice recognition for an extra fee.

Model lines from Audi, Chrysler, Daewoo, Ford, Honda, and Volkswagen offer integrated calling.

With a built-in, installed or plug-in system that’s always in your car, you may never need to take your phone out of a bag or pocket. The phone will automatically reassociate itself with the car kit whenever you step inside.

Glenn Fleishman writes the Practical Mac column in Personal Technology.