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Do hands-free phones really save lives?

Time will tell if the Massachusetts law banning driving with a phone in your hand will save lives.
Time will tell if the Massachusetts law banning driving with a phone in your hand will save lives.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

This probably isn’t your first warning.

By now, you know that the Massachusetts law against driving with a phone in your hand is officially in effect, and police will be issuing warnings rather than citations until the end of March. After that come the fines — $100 and up. Way up.

But will the new laws save lives? That, we don’t know. The first state law requiring hands-free phoning was enacted in New York 19 years ago; today 20 other states and the District of Columbia have such rules. Yet the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says it can’t find clear-cut evidence that hands-free laws do any good. Don’t be too surprised. Several research studies have found that chatting while driving causes dangerous distraction, whether the phone is in the driver’s hand or not.

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Maybe Massachusetts will settle the question, once and for all, if we can get enough of the state’s famously irritable drivers to comply.

It shouldn’t be a burden for owners of newer cars who already place calls and play tunes using a Bluetooth radio connection to the vehicle’s built-in audio system. Many such cars also include programs that let a user connect Apple or Android phones directly to the car’s computer network. Apple’s version is called CarPlay, while Google offers Android Auto. Either program lets users run their phone apps using the car’s dashboard video touchscreen. They also offer easy hands-free phone calling, as well as verbal control of the phone’s GPS navigation system.

Funny thing, though. The icons on your car’s built-in screen can be just as distracting as the ones on your phone. But according to Representative Bill Straus, who co-chairs the state Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee, the law doesn’t cover these screens, even if they give you access to the functions on your phone. Straus said it’s just a matter of time before lawmakers address this issue. “We do need to, in the next version, deal with the in-dash distractions," he said. But for now, there’s a double standard for distracted driving.

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Meanwhile, those of us with older cars can no longer touch our phones while driving, even if the phone is mounted on a holder bolted to the dashboard. Actually, Straus said you can touch the phone just once to perform a specific function, like answering a call or hanging it up. But if a policeman sees you tapping an address into the phone’s GPS navigator, you’re busted.

Even with these limitations, you might consider running an app to make the most of these occasional taps. For instance, Android Auto is useful even if you don’t own a compatible car. It completely rearranges the look of an Android phone, displaying big, easy-to-see icons connected to the most useful apps. With just one touch you can call your wife or see how bad traffic will be on the way home.

There’s no equivalent product built into the iPhone, just a safety feature that will lock all the phone’s functions if it detects it’s inside a moving car. But you can obtain iPhone apps with names such as CarOS that provide one-touch access to key phone functions.

You’ll still need a phone holder, of course. These are available almost anywhere for about $20. Then there’s the matter of audio. If your car lacks a Bluetooth system, you’ll have to rely on the phone’s built-in speaker and microphone. Or you can go with earbuds — either wired or the wireless Bluetooth variety. Make sure you get a set with a built-in microphone so you can talk to the phone as well as listen. And remember that it’s legal to use one earbud while driving, but never two. Leave an ear free to detect oncoming sirens.

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Your microphone will let you use place phone calls or play music with nothing but verbal commands. An iPhone can be set to respond to the wake-up words, “Hey Siri, call my wife.” If you’ve got an Android phone, try “Hey Google, play jazz on Spotify."

Nothing to it, really. So start practicing now, because next month it gets real.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.