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TheStreet Open House

Keeping Your Hands on the Wheel and Off the Phone

Forgive us, fellow drivers, for we have sinned. We are a bunch of faithless jerks zooming around in our cars, yapping on cell phones, swearing hotly as we execute triple lane changes. I'm willing to be a better person, and I want you to join me. It's time for us to take our cell phones hands-free.

Plus, we'll look cooler, like astronauts.

New York is laying down the law, fining drivers who steer and hold their cell phones beginning Dec. 1. Other states are ready to bring the smackdown. Let's look at the options, from a few bucks to several thousand dollars before we don't really have the choice.

For between $25 and $40, you can go to your nearest equivalent to Radio Shack or Circuit City and buy a small headset with a "boom" microphone. You plug it into any mobile phone with a 2.5mm jack and get good sound quality. Maybe you want to splurge and get one with a retractable cord that winds up instead of getting tangled. You look like Sally Ride, you paid next to nothing, and the person riding shotgun doesn't have to shift for you. It's the top choice: It won't make you sound like you're in a wind tunnel, it's easy to use and it is sold widely.

Hands-free gets even cheaper than that: For $15 you can get one of those "earbud" pieces that slip right into your ear and have the miniature microphone built into the cord. (Personally, I'm a firm believer that the ear is a sacred place. Nothing comes out, nothing goes in, just like the warning on the Q-tips box.) Pay the extra $20 and get something more hygienic with better sound quality. For those of you oddly drawn to the earplug, you can get gel versions for a comfort fit, you sick puppies.

Perhaps you're a little concerned about where to put the phone in the car. Most of your tire-screeching comes from reaching into the back seat for your attache case and your attempts to unzip it with one hand and answer the phone. But you're not putting the cell phone in your lap until the New England Journal of Medicine gives you 50 years of conclusive research that it's harmless. You can easily buy a $50-to-75 device that plugs into your cigarette lighter, holds the phone, charges it and can act as a speakerphone. However, each mobile phone has different dimensions, slots, needs and wants. Most likely your mobile-phone maker, carrier or electronics store will stock several do-it-yourself kits, but you need to get one that works with your specific phone. There's no one-size-fits-all in this purchase; you won't be seeing kits for all Motorola phones or all Nokias .

How the Various Devices Stack Up
Device Price Ruling
Earbud with cord microphone $15ish The sound isn't great, but it's cheaper than a high-end pizza.
Headset with "boom" microphone $25-$40 Good sound, right price, available at your local electronics store
Hands-free kit that plugs into cigarette lighter $50-$70 Includes charger but kit must match your phone. Buy online.
Installed hands-free kit $200 plus installation Passengers can hear calls. Sound quality is good, but you can't take it easily to a new car.
OnStar phone system An extra with top of the line GM car. Highly advanced system with voice recognition. Involves set-up and big bucks.

Additionally, for extra cash, you can enhance the speakerphone capabilities of the kit with a better microphone to clip to your steering wheel, but you are venturing into territory better traveled at higher ends of the spending range.

Your car is your temple; you should not haphazardly be stringing wires and taping down antennae in the cockpit. Having a call on speakerphone means that should you be driving with friends and loved ones, they will all be joining in what will become a conference call.

Time to Call a Professional

That suggests you might be looking for a professionally installed, hands-free system. You're looking at something upwards of $200, before installation, for a microphone, speakers and a cradle. These systems have good sound, but they're like a stereo system -- they can't be transported from car to car. You sell the car, the system will most likely go with it.

Finally, we get to the top of the pyramid. General Motors' OnStar system is the headliner of the built-in crowd, available in most 2002 models of fancy and practical GM cars. You knew from its commercials that OnStar can give Batman directions to Batgirl's dentist's office and will call 911 if the Joker runs Batman off the road, but you might not have been aware that it also comes with voice-activated mobile-phone service.

OnStar style voice-recognition service is the only option that solves the problem of distraction from dialing and answering the phone. Drivers who take the time can enter in frequently dialed numbers that can be called with simple voice commands, such as "Home." Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Jaguar offer factory-installed, hands-free options for some Motorola phones, as most luxury cars offer some hands-free option.

This option is slightly cost-prohibitive, unless you were looking for another reason to buy a Cadillac Escalade. But money is no excuse to be dogging it in the fast lane or jerking through city streets. Hands-free driving can be accomplished with an inexpensive wireless handset. If you want to feel like Chuck Yeager, you can install something more comprehensive. You can always chew gum and walk on the sidewalk if you miss the thrill.

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