You've seen them. A car that gradually drifts into an adjacent lane on the expressway, then jerks back into its own when the driver realizes where the vehicle is headed. Or, on a city street, the car that floats through a wide turn, then zigzags as the driver struggles to straighten it. Drunk drivers? Perhaps. But more likely, a cell phone is what's distracting them.
The problem is so bad that a growing number of governments are forbidding the use of handheld phones while driving. New York City recently began considering such a ban, while similar bills have been filed in California, Massachusetts, Virginia, Arizona, and Tennessee.
If phone time is a desirable or even necessary part of your ride, you can take some precautions to limit the chances of becoming a lane-drifter. The devices range from low-cost earpieces and headsets to in-dash speakerphones and voice-recognition systems that eliminate even the few keypad strokes needed for speed dial.
The easiest solution is to use an earpiece or headset with your wireless phone. That way, you can keep both hands on the wheel and still carry on a conversation. Some carriers, notably AT&T Wireless (www.attws.com), include a simple earphone--called an earbud--with many of the phones they sell. Or you can pick one up for $10 to $30 at any store that sells phones or office supplies. Generic models come with a simple plug, so you may need to get an adapter to mate it to your phone. An added benefit: If you have concerns about radiation from wireless antennas causing brain tumors, an earphone gets the phone well away from your head.
The simplest style is a tiny, round, foam-covered speaker that fits snugly, Walkmanlike, in your ear. The cord dangles down your front, with an elliptical bulb--the microphone--about four or five inches down the cord, around your chin or neck area. It's not necessary to hold it up to your mouth: The mike is sensitive enough to pick up everything you say. It's worth it to spend a few dollars more to get one with an "answer-end" button on the bulb. That way, you can answer incoming calls and hang up when you're finished just by squeezing the button instead of fumbling around to find your phone.
If you're afraid the earbud will fall out of your ear, or if you're bothered by road noise, go for a more traditional headset with a boom mike. Even those with a full headband cover only one ear, so you can still hear horns and sirens. And don't even think it might label you a nerd: With Madonna and Ricky Martin wearing them on concert tours and Tom Cruise and Bruce Willis sporting them in movies, they're the latest fashion. They come in colors, too.
Plantronics (www.plantronics.com) makes a line of mobile headsets that sell for $30 to $65. My current favorite: the M145, a $50 ultralightweight in-the-ear model with a C-shaped clip behind the ear to hold it in place. It has volume controls for both the speaker and microphone. Another good bet is the $60 Jabra EarSet (www.jabra.com). It comes with six gel-like earpieces in day-glo colors for the left and right ears and in different sizes so you get a perfect fit. The microphone is all but invisible, integrated into the part that fits in your ear.
INGENIOUS. Another popular hands-free device is a speakerphone. Many new cell phones come with one built in, or you can buy attachments that will do the job. Motorola (www.motorola.com) sells a contoured, hands-free speaker for $75 that clips on to the back of many of its StarTAC and Timeport models. The most ingenious is Taiko's Speakerphone Battery (www.taiko.com), a replacement battery for Nokia phones that incorporates an amplifier, speaker, and microphone. It's $100 to $120, depending on where you buy it. Tip: Speakerphones work better in a car if you clip them to the sun visor or mount them high on the dash, where the buttons are easily reachable and the microphone is not too far from your mouth.
For a true car speakerphone, you'll need to buy a car kit. Do-it-yourself versions range from about $50 for a generic model to about $125 for one from a phone manufacturer. In general, they include a mounting bracket for the phone, a speaker that plugs into the cigarette lighter, and a microphone that clips to the visor. Professionally installed models run $100 and up and will set you back an additional $50 to $150 for installation. Their big advantage, besides eliminating the jumble of visible equipment and wires, is a more powerful external antenna that can extend the range of your handheld phone.
Even headsets and speakerphones can't eliminate the most distracting part of phoning from your car: looking away from the road to dial. For that, experts recommend that you become intimately familiar with the layout of your phone's keypad and take full advantage of its features, such as auto redial, and one- or two-key combinations to speed dial from the phone's memory. If your phone has voice dialing, take the time to program it to recognize your voice.
VOICE DIAL. Of all the carriers, Sprint PCS (www.sprintpcs.com) has come up with the all-around best way to voice dial from your phone. It puts the speech technology into the network instead of the phone. With Voice Command, a $10 monthly option (free on some plans), you place the call by speaking a name or number into any Sprint phone. You simply upload your Microsoft Outlook address book to your personal Sprint Web page, and without training, it recognizes any name in it, regardless of the voice saying it.
You can best reduce your risk, of course, by limiting your telephone time in the car. Headsets, speakerphones, and voice dialing can minimize the physical dexterity it takes to place and answer calls, but they're not much help in keeping your mind on the road if the conversation is complicated or stressful. If things get tense, pull off the road to talk. Most wireless services come with free voice mail; let it answer your calls. If possible, ask a passenger to take and make your calls. Let the other party know you're on the road and you may have to take a break to maneuver through traffic.
And remember, sometimes it's best just to hang up and drive.