New York — I'll admit it outright: I am not the best driver around, and my less-than-stellar skills seem to become even more impaired when I drive with a cell phone in hand.
But the roads will get a bit safer Nov. 1 as New York becomes the first state to ban holding a cell phone while driving. A handful of local municipalities also have such bans, and dozens of other states are considering them, too.
The punishment for breaking the law in New York is steep: $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second and $500 for each after that. I decided it was time to think about a headset for my mobile phone.
I was immediately overwhelmed by the choices, ranging from $15 earpieces to $200 wireless headsets. There are also pricey kits, permanent or removable, that can be installed in a car, and you can even buy a vehicle with a phone system built-in.
The first thing I realized: Headsets don't make cell-phone use fully hands-free. Though I no longer had to chat with the phone in my hand, I often had to hold one to dial or answer a call. The distraction is comparable to changing the radio station, yet I still had to look away from the road for a second or two.
In addition, I was surprised by how awkward the headsets were to use initially. With many, I felt as though I was talking into the air. It took time to get used to making calls without cradling something next to my head.
I also felt the overall sound wasn't great on most of the devices tested. People I called complained of a terrible echo or asked if I were in a wind-tunnel. The sound was best when I closed all of the car's windows and sunroof and turned the radio off.
The headsets generally sit in or over just one ear, letting me hear horns, sirens and other outside sounds while driving.
One other piece of advice: Although most new phones have a jack to plug in a headset, consumers shopping for one should bring their phone with them to make sure they won't need an adapter.
Trying out the devices
I had the most success with the Plantronics M205 earbud, which retails for about $40 and fits most phones. It has a comfortable earpiece, and the cord that plugs into the phone has a dangling microphone that can be clipped right beside your chin for what I found to be the best sound. The cord has a switch to answer or end calls without touching the phone.
I also tried the Plantronics M135, an over-the-ear style headset. This model is comfortable to wear, with a microphone extending from the ear toward the side of the mouth. But I found the sound uneven with the $50 device, and people I called kept complaining of difficulties hearing me.
Motorola has a broad line of hands-free devices. I had decent success with the $60 FM Stereo Headset, compatible with Motorola's 60, 120 and 270 models. The headset had good sound when used for calls and also could turn the phones into FM radios. The radio automatically muted when calls came in.
If cost isn't an issue, the wireless Ericsson Bluetooth Headset HBH-10 is a good high-tech option. The headset alone costs about $200, and it is used with the $130 Bluetooth Adapter DBA-10. Right now, the headset and adapter are only compatible with the Ericsson T28 World, a $100 phone, but additional phones are planned for later this year.
Of the devices I tested, Ericsson's had one of the clearest sounds. The system, after some practice, was easy to use. The headset sat over the ear, and a microphone swung around toward the mouth. Using its wireless capabilities, I could answer the phone by simply pressing a button on the headset. The headset works as far away as 30 feet from the phone.
More to consider
Among the bulkier portable kits, the $50 Powerplus Hands-Free Kit was easy to set up and had OK sound. It worked by plugging a speaker into the car's lighter, attaching the cell phone to an adjacent wire and clipping a microphone to the visor.
When a call came in, I answered the phone as I normally would, such as by flipping it open or pushing a button. The conversation then took place through the speaker and microphone so that I wouldn't need to touch the phone again until hanging up. A switch allows you to turn the speaker off and continue the conversation privately through the mobile phone.
While I could hear a caller's voice clearly, people I called complained that I faded in and out or that there was background interference. The kit, which also sells under the Fellowes brand, fits with many phones, including ones from Motorola, Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung and Sanyo.
Given the growing demand for hands-free devices, retailers such as Radio Shack and Staples are quickly expanding shelf space devoted to such goods. In addition, many manufacturers sell their offerings online and offer quick reference systems that let you check on phone compatibility.
Overall, I was somewhat disappointed with the headsets I tested. Very few had clear, crisp sound. But the technology for such products is still young, and I'm counting on the quality improving as the market for headsets takes off.