New law governing cell phone use in vehicles takes effect Jan. 1

Written by Bill Rautenstrauch, The Observer December 30, 2009 03:14 pm

LOCAL DEALERS SAY hands-free devices with Bluetooth wireless technology are popular sellers as the deadline for Oregon’s new cell phone law approaches. Paul West of Eastern Oregon Satellite and Wireless shows off a visor-mounted unit. Both products allow drivers to talk on cell phones while keeping hands on the wheel. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH photo
LOCAL DEALERS SAY hands-free devices with Bluetooth wireless technology are popular sellers as the deadline for Oregon’s new cell phone law approaches. Paul West of Eastern Oregon Satellite and Wireless shows off a visor-mounted unit. Both products allow drivers to talk on cell phones while keeping hands on the wheel. BILL RAUTENSTRAUCH photo
With a new law governing cell phone use in vehicles set to take effect in Oregon Jan. 1, people are visiting their wireless stores in larger than usual numbers.

Local dealers report they’re doing brisk business in hands-free devices, an upcoming requirement for any Oregonian who wants to talk on the phone while behind the wheel.

“There’s been quite a jump in sales, because of the holidays and also because of the law,” said Tyler Brown, general manager at Beyond Wireless on Adams Avenue in downtown La Grande.

Paul West, manager of Eastern Oregon Satellite and Wireless on Island Avenue, also noted high demand.

“We’ve been scrambling to keep up since Black Friday,” he said.

The new law, Oregon House Bill 2377, prohibits all drivers from using a mobile communication device while operating a motor vehicle. But like the best and the worst of laws, this one’s got loopholes.

As it’s worded, the bill prohibits “persons of any age from operating motor vehicles while using mobile communication devices except under certain circumstances.”

The exceptions include emergencies, business being conducted by safety workers, and people using hands-free accessories.

So, drivers may in fact talk on their cell phones as long as they’re using a device that allows them to keep both hands on the wheel.

Those devices, sold just about anywhere cell phones and related products are sold, include headsets with wires attached, and systems built into the dash.

But West and Brown both say a couple of the most popular devices are the ones that use Bluetooth technology.

Bluetooth allows wireless transmissions between a cell phone and a separate device, like an earpiece or a unit clipped to the driver’s-side visor.

“Earpieces are our number one seller, just because they’re less expensive,” said West.

Either option works, as long as the cell phone is Bluetooth-enabled. But as always, a customer gets what he pays for.

That goes especially for the earpieces, which have varying noise reduction capabilities.

“It all depends on the level of clarity you want,” West said.

Earpieces on sale at West’s store range in price from $30 to $170. 

“The more expensive ones can eliminate the sound of a jackhammer that’s right nearby. In the cheaper models, it sounds like people are talking into a pop can.”

The visor-mount Bluetooth products also vary in features and price. Both Beyond Wireless and Eastern Oregon Satellite and Wireless sell models that route transmissions through a vehicle’s stereo speakers, automatically adjusting the level of background sound.

Less expensive is a model that has a small, built-in speaker-microphone.

“Then basically you’re talking to the visor,” West said. He noted that he is currently sold out of visor mount units.

“For now, we’re taking pre-orders,” he said.

Brown said that Bluetooth devices are consistent sellers year-round, and that demand is up with the Jan. 1 deadline approaching.

He agreed with West that features and quality rise with price. He said people shopping for a hands-free device should make their decision based on need and conditions.

“Someone who’s not using it a lot might not need to spend so much,” he said, adding that less expensive equipment can work well under certain conditions.

“If the environment’s good and quiet, no problem,” he said.

In any case, time is running out for people addicted to talking on cell phones while behind the wheel. They may not have to give up the practice entirely, but they will have to modify their behavior.

After Jan. 1, drivers caught talking into a hand-held device or text messaging while driving can be slapped with a $90 ticket.

There are a few exceptions to the new law, including those using their handheld for emergencies, and safety workers.

House Bill 2872, the law that prohibits people younger than 18 from using mobile communications devices of any kind while driving, still stands.