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By Miriam Raftery

October 1, 2008 (San Diego's East County) Legislators
who voted to ban cell phone usage while driving obviously never tried communicating
via a a hands-free device while traversing East County's back roads and
byways, where even normal cell phone service is spotty at best and often non-existent. I'm
certain that if these do-gooders in Sacramento had to conduct their business
in the boonies, they'd repeal the law in a nanosecond.

Like countless other Californians, I dutifully stood in line for over an hour
over the July 4th weekend to buy a hands-free "earbud" device at
a local cellular phone store. The gadget felt uncomfortable in my ear
and promptly caught on an earring. My sunglasses fell off when I leaned

After charging up the device overnight, I headed out on the road. The
buttons were too small to use without ripping the gadget off my ear, holding
it up and looking at it to click it on or off, defeating the whole point
of a hands-free phone. But the reception was even worse. It
sounded like calls had originated on Mars. So after a few days, I found
myself standing in a return line along with other disgruntled customers.

I tried to buy a Bluetooth flip-open device that a family member recommended,
which seemed less awkward and easier to use. But the store had stopped
carrying the product. So I ordered it online. Weeks later, I still
had no phone. Turns out it was on back order. Pulling over every
time the phone rang was tiresome and often impossible on winding mountain roads
with no shoulder; several of my writing clients began grumbling that I'd
become too hard to reach.

Finally, after five weeks, my Bluetooth arrived. But the computerized
voice command system had a mind of its own.

"Call Mom" I commanded confidently.

"Command not recognized" it countered.

I repeated the order, but Bluetooth refused to cooperate. Then I spoke
the full phone number, enunciating each number clearly. No deal.I
still couldn't call Mom!

Giving up, I bent the law and dialed on my cell, then switched to Bluetooth
to converse. The reception was garbled and Mom kept asking me to repeat
every other phrase. By the end, I was shouting into the phone but eventually
got the critical points across.

Later I tried calling a friend. It sounded like she was standing in
the middle of a wildfire, there was so much popping and snapping on the line. Giving
up, I next tried calling my daughter.

"Unable to recognize command with flip not open" the infernal
machine said.

"What do you mean, flip not open?" I groused. "It
IS open!" I flipped it closed, then open, several times, resisting
the temptation to hurl it out the window. No luck.

By then, then battery had gone dead. So much for getting any business
calls made.

Next day, I set out in the back country again.

This time, I instructed the infernal machine to "Call Leon" our
magazine's marketing director.

"Did you say, call x!@#?" Bluetooth repeated, garbling the command
into something unintellible. I repeated the instruction, but still couldn't
comprehend the muffled automated voice. Since when did robots learn to

I shrugged. "Yes. Call Leon."

The robot dialed. "Mark Hanson here" our publisher replied.

"Aaaaaagh!" I exclaimed, exasperated. "Sorry Mark,
I wasn't calling you. My Bluetooth can't understand English." Maybe
you should offer an ESL class for wireless drones.

At this point I was so distracted I nearly ran my car off the road, swerving
to avoid a tumbleweed. So much for hands-free devices being safer.

After three more tries, I finally reached Leon, who was also speaking on his
new Bluetooth while driving on a country road. "Hello? Hello? I
can't hear you" he said. Then the line went dead. We
reconnected several more times, only to lose reception each time either of
us drove around a bend. By now, I felt driven around a bend by
Bluetooth and let down by the promise of carefree, hands-free communications
on the road.

As a freelance journalist who spends many hours a week on the road, it's
crucial to have a way to reach editors, writers, people I'm interviewing,
and others while away from home. Earlier this year, when Dad was terminally
ill, family members had to reach me at a moment's notice. Many
other people have important reasons for needing to make or take calls right
away -- parents who leave kids with a babysitter, traveling business professionals,
carpool drivers, to name a few. How many important calls will now be
missed because of poor-quality of technology that just doesn't meet the
needs of rural residents or travelers? How many accidents will be caused by
exasperated wireless phone customers?

I've used a cell phone for years. I never had an accident resulting
from cell phone usage. I don't text message, and usually pulled
over to dial, especially in heavy traffic. Those might be reasonable requirements. But
I fail to see how merely talking on a standard cell phone while driving is
any more distracting than listening to the radio, chatting with passengers
or countless other activities. Who hasn't driven one-handed
while snacking, sipping a cup of coffee, glancing at a map or handing toys
to cranky kids in the backseat? Should we ban all of these activities
too? Of course not.

I'm all for public safety. But frankly, trying to use hands-free
communication devices that just don't work in rural areas is far more
distracting than simply talking on a cell phone with better reception. We already
have laws to hold people accountable if they cause accidents due to inattentive
driving. Why not repeal this discriminatory law hurting all cell phone
users, and instead enforce laws already on the books for anyone whose careless
use of a cell phone actually causes an accident?

If you share my "Bluetooth Blues" then please call your state
legislators and ask them to repeal this well-intentioned but ill-conceived
law. That is, if you can even get reception to dial out on those static-prone
wireless devices. Or save yourself the frustration and visit our
Citizens Action Center to send an e-mail to your state Assembly and Senate

My vote: Hands down on hands-free phones!

Opinions expressed in our editorial section are the views of individual
authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of East County Magazine
or its publisher. Editorials may be submitted to editor@eastcountymagazine.org

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