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On the road? Don't talk to the hand

Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Scott Gutierrez

Mike Place isn't a state trooper or a traffic safety expert. But as a sales manager at a downtown Car Toys store, he's fielded plenty of questions about Washington's new ban on using hand-held cell phones while driving.

"Mostly they ask, 'Is it going to count if I'm doing this? Or is going to count if I'm doing that? Or is it even true?' " said Place, who has worked for six years at Car Toys, which sells car stereos and wireless Bluetooth products for cell-phone use.

Starting July 1, talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving will be illegal without a headset or hands-free device. California is enacting a similar law this year, too.

Despite his position, even Place has questions about how the law will be enforced. But for now, he and other retailers are gearing up on products and sales promotions as they anticipate customers needing to buy wireless headsets.

Some companies plan discounts and giveaways.

Traffic-safety officials would prefer that drivers just let the phone ring while they're behind the wheel. Some studies show the conversation is as much a distraction as the device.

"That is the No. 1 advice we give. If someone calls you, just pull off the road," said Steve Lind, acting director of the state Traffic Safety Commission. "If it's an important phone call, they'll leave a message and you can get right back to them."

Meanwhile, retailers haven't yet seen a flood of desperate customers worried they'll get a ticket. In other states that began regulating cell-phone use, like New York in 2001, the demand didn't pick up until the last minute, said Mike Faith, founder and CEO of Headsets.com, a San Francisco company.

"What we've seen in other states is that it's caused a real spike in sales about two weeks on either side of the date," Faith said. "We're already anticipating it, so we're building inventory."

With two West Coast states affected this time, Faith wants to promote traffic safety and get his company's name out there by offering free Bluetooth headsets to anyone who gets cited for a cell-phone violation after July 1.

All he requires is a copy of the citation and he'll honor his word until supplies run out, he said.

He thinks some of the scofflaws will be people who can't afford a headset and he wants to help, he said.

"Obviously, we don't want people to get citations," he said. "But we're hoping it will make people think twice after getting a ticket about not using the phone in the car."

Most cell phones come with a standard earpiece that can be plugged into the phone. Bluetooth, however, refers to wireless, low-power headsets and stereo kits that run anywhere from $30 to $250.

A cell-phone citation, in comparison, will cost $124, although it's a secondary infraction, meaning you'd have to be caught committing a more serious offense first, such as speeding or forgetting to signal.

The cell-phone law follows a ban on text messaging that took effect in January. State officials have no data yet available on enforcement or compliance, a spokesman said.

"On this one, we're going more by common sense. The Legislature nailed it that texting while driving is a bad idea," spokesman Bob Calkins said.

The State Patrol plans to publicize the upcoming cell-phone law through media and community education a few weeks before it takes effect, spokesman Dan Coon said.

At T-Mobile, sales clerks already have seen an uptick in customers interested in Bluetooth products, although it's uncertain whether that's because of the law, spokesman Graham Snow said.

The company plans to offer a 20 percent discount on Bluetooth items from June 12 to July 22, or when more people are anticipated to be reacting to the law, he said.

Companies already expect that some people who aren't technologically savvy will avoid Bluetooth.

"If they hadn't used one before, it's kind of a barrier in their mind. But once you get one, it's just 90 seconds to set up and use," said Faith, of Headsets.com.

At Car Toys, drivers also can choose to forgo a headset for a system that retrofits to their stereo, equipping it as a speakerphone, Place said.

About one customer is in every day to get a Bluetooth kit installed, he said. Prices range from $169.99 to $239.99 for the stereo option, plus $60 to $200 for installation, Place said.

Place personally prefers a small Bluetooth speakerphone that clips to his sun visor. It's cheaper, but also less audible if a window or sunroof is open, he said.

He doesn't hear from very many customers who are upset about the law, he said.

"I think just about everybody has been run off the road by someone talking on their cell phone," he said.

The legislation was approved in 2007 after several years of running into opposition. Some questioned singling out cell phones, when drivers also eat, put on makeup or tune the radio, which can be just as distracting and can result in a citation if the behavior leads to an accident.

According to state traffic data, cell phones and BlackBerrys contribute to about 1 percent of collisions, more than drivers who are smoking, adjusting the radio or grooming.

"It's about time. It took me seven years to get this thing passed," said state Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, who sponsored the legislation.

"You can't drive down the street anymore without seeing people talking on the cell phone, and people are realizing they are dangerous," she said.

Eide bought a Bluetooth set, but she's decided she's much safer not using the cell phone at all while she's driving. She points to two pedestrians on their cell phones who were struck by trains because they were distracted.

"If it's a constituent, I make darn good and sure I'm at a place where I can sit and think and talk. I won't even do it if I'm going 5 miles an hour and stuck in a traffic jam," Eide said.

New York was the first state to ban hand-held cell phones in 2001, and other states have followed with mixed results. Traffic officials aim to collect data during the next few years to gauge its effect, said Lind, of the Traffic Safety Commission.

Lind said part of the debate was whether the law would serve as a financial boon for wireless companies.

"If you look at people who finally ended up supporting it, there was a mix of cell-phone companies and providers on both sides of the issue. That leads me to believe they're at least not united in wanting to raise money," he said.

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