Hands-free driving law takes effect Oct. 1

Retailers expect onslaught of drivers buying wireless headsets, speakers to avoid tickets

  • Mike Ficzko, mobile manager at Best Buy, wears his "Jawbone" BlueTooth device all the time, he said.
Mike Ficzko, mobile manager at Best Buy, wears his "Jawbone"… (Baltimore Sun photo by Barbara…)
September 24, 2010|By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland drivers take note: A new era of driving while chatting on your cell phone begins Oct. 1.

The state is among about a dozen in the country that have banned the use of handheld phones while driving. That means Maryland drivers must avoid calls, or use a hands-free headset or speaker system when talking on the phone behind the wheel, to comply with the law.

The new law — in addition to a ban on texting while driving that took effect last year — means a small boon for retailers, car dealers and device manufacturers who have seen sales jump in other states that have enacted similar laws. Consumers could find themselves jockeying with each other in the aisles of electronics retailers as they seek the right device for their ears, their cars — and their wallets.

"Whenever there's a [hands-free] cell phone law passed, we see quite a spike in business in that state immediately before and then a continued uptick in business afterwards as people get pulled over," said Mike Faith, chief executive of Headsets.com, an online retailer.

Under Maryland's law, which passed earlier this year, drivers can initiate or end calls with handheld devices while driving but can't use their hands to hold the device while talking. The penalty is a secondary violation, meaning police can only issue a citation when pulling drivers over for a primary violation, such as speeding. The fines are $40 for the first offense and $100 for subsequent violations.

Automobile safety advocates have for years lobbied nationally for tougher laws against distracted driving. The movement aims to change drivers' cell phone habits and could lead to the widespread availability of hands-free devices in automobiles, including one of the latest technologies that allows users to read and send text messages through voice prompts.

Several options are available for those who still want to talk and drive. Cars can be outfitted with a built-in speakerphone system. More affordable options include corded or wireless earpieces that synchronize with mobile devices and a car's speaker system.

"Long term, what we see is a new breed of user," said Dan Race, a spokesman for Plantronics, a wireless headset manufacturer. "They become lifelong customers."

Consumer choices abound, with dozens of makes and models to choose from. Car dealers and retailers such as Best Buy and Radio Shack say they expect to see a boost in product sales in the coming months.

A Best Buy store in Timonium has a sign at the front of the store declaring how many days remain before the new law takes effect next to displays of hands-free cell phone accessories.

"Most people will wait until they have to, and then they'll flood the stores," said Michael Ficzko, manager of the store's mobile department. "We're preparing not just for now, but for October, November and December."

Ficzko's staff helped a retired Joe Spence, 76, buy and set up a Plantronics Explorer 396 wireless ear piece for $49.99 on Wednesday. Spence said he was buying the device because he didn't want to risk a ticket, and he liked it for its small size.

"I didn't want some monstrosity sticking out of my ear," Spence said.

Ficzko and others who sell the hands-free headsets and speakers said that consumers need to look closely at how they use a phone in their car to select a device that meets their needs. If you don't want a headset or earpiece, you could opt for speakers that can clip on the sun visor or a system that's built into the car.

Some of the more highly rated manufacturers of headsets include BlueAnt, Jabra, Plantronics and Jawbone, according to ConsumerSearch.com, an independent online review site.

For low-end corded models, prices start at $15. The wireless earpieces, which use Bluetooth wireless technology, typically start around $30 and can cost more than $130.

As prices rise, the headsets come with more bells and whistles. Higher performance products that feature noise cancellation technology, which blocks out intrusive background noise, can start at $40 or $50.

For users who are on their cell phones frequently, earpieces may be a good option because they can be worn anywhere, not just in the car.

But for people who don't want to be seen sporting an earpiece, speaker-phone systems may be the better option. Such units are typically about the size of a small hand, run $40 to $100, and can be clipped to the driver's side visor. The devices will synchronize with your cell phone or smart phone, as long as the phone is Bluetooth-enabled.

Higher-end models also can play the digital music stored on a cell phone, and even transmit it over FM airwaves to a car stereo.

Some cars come with a factory-installed hands-free phone speaker system already built in. Several automakers, such as Cadillac, Mercedes, Ford and Toyota, offer such systems, usually for a several-hundred-dollar upgrade. Some cars can be upgraded by the dealer.

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