Driving without distraction

New laws in California and Washington require drivers to use hands-free devices when using a cell phone in the car. CNET tells you how to keep both hands on the wheel.

Kent German Former senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Kent German
4 min read

Beginning July 1 of this year, new laws in California and Washington will require drivers to use a hands-free device when using a cell phone. California goes a step further for drivers under 18; they will be prohibited outright from using a cell phone while operating a motor vehicle. Washington does not make any age distinctions, but since January 1, the Evergreen State has prohibited composing or sending text messages while driving. After the laws go into effect, Washington and California will join the District of Columbia, New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut in enacting statewide hands-free calling legislation. In other states, regulations range from hands-free mandates in municipalities, such as Chicago, to complete cell phone bans for drivers with a learner's permit.

The Aliph Jawbone is one of the best Bluetooth headsets we've reviewed. CNET Networks

So what to do?
If you're a California or Washington resident, or if your a New Yorker who's late in getting onboard, you have a few options for keeping both hands on the wheel. The good news is that all existing cell phones are compatible with some form of hands-free device. Some handsets will be compatible only with an old-fashioned wired headset, but there's no need to buy a new phone. That is, unless you're using the new laws as an excuse to upgrade (more on that later). The last point you should remember is that to fully comply with the law, you'll need to keep your hands off your phone completely. That means that dialing numbers or scrolling through your contacts list could result in a ticket. So to be extra safe, your phone should support voice dialing as well.

Jabra is a respected Bluetooth headset maker, including the tiny JX10. CNET Networks

A wired world In an age of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, the wired cell phone has been regulated to the bottom shelf of the cell phone store. But even so, a wired headset is one of the best hands-free options available. Not only is every cell phone compatible with a wired headset, but also they're a steal when compared to a Bluetooth model. In fact, most phones come with a wired headset in the box (if you can find our box). These free headsets won't be fancy, and the sound quality may be variable, but they're the cheapest and most convenient option.

If you didn't get a wired headset when you bought your phone, you can find a wide variety of products online or at your carrier store. Basic models will cost under $20, but if you want to splurge there are flashier options available. Indeed,we've seen headsets with retractable wires, changeable earbuds and even models in bright colors. As Bluetooth continue to proliferate, the selection of wired headsets will grow increasingly smaller but rest assured they're not going to the cell phone graveyard. Just remember to choose carefully and select a headset that will work with your phone. The type of headset jack can vary widely, even between phones from the same manufacturer, so it's important to know what you'll need. And don't even think about using a stereo headset designed to work both for music and phone calls. Using a headset that covers both ears would defeat the purpose of the new laws.

The Plantronics Voyager 855 has a unique design CNET Networks

Going wireless
Though Bluetooth was an exclusive feature just a couple of years ago, the technology has started to make its way into simpler cell phone. Of course, the biggest advantage of Bluetooth is that it iswireless, so there's no danger of getting tangled up in cords while you drive. Also, while wired headsets have reached the peak of their functionality, Bluetooth continues to evolve with new features. CNET's Quick guide to Bluetooth headsets will tell you everything you need to know about the technology, from its origin and uses to the range of devices available. Also, check out our choices for the Best Bluetooth headsets.

On the flip side, you'll need a cell phone that supports Bluetooth. Most phones introduced in the last year support the feature, particularly smartphones and multimedia devices, but basic models and handsets more than a couple of years old are another story. Another Bluetooth caveat is that it does not come cheap. While using the technology is free you will have to shell out between $50 to $100 (some high-end models can cost more) to buy a headset. It's rare that you'd get a free headset when you buy a new phone.

Tekkeon makes this ET6000 Bluetooth speakerphone. CNET Networks

As with wired headsets, there's a wide range of Bluetooth headsets available. Designs include range from big and clunky to small and stylish (well, as stylish as a Bluetooth headset can be). The comfort of the headset also is important so be sure to try on a few samples and see how the feel. Finally, you should consider what features you'd prefer. Some headsets offer last number redial, some offer call mute and some even offer a tiny display that shows caller ID. If your current phone doesn't have Bluetooth but you'd like to use the feature, talk to your carrier about an upgrade. If you're a long-term customer, you should be able to get a new phone at a discount, though you will have to sign a new contract.

Speak up
The last option is a speakerphone. You can use your handset's integrated speakerphone (almost all cell phones have them) or you can buy a Bluetooth speakerphone that you can position in your car. Alternatively, if your car supports Bluetooth you can connect your phone to your car's system and use it to make calls. Just keep in mind that a phone with voice dialing is a must if you want to use the speakerphone completely.