Mobile Computing: Cell Phone Safety

Feature: Cell Phone Safety

This just in: The cell phone is a necessary--but potentially dangerous--traveling companion.

Are you shocked? Probably not. But stick with me. I have news that might surprise you about using smart phones and cell phones on the go. And I've got tips for staying safe and (reasonably) productive.

Driven to Distraction

Recent government studies indicate that cell phones and other wireless devices are by far the biggest distraction for drivers.

In one report tracking 100 cars, driving while using a wireless device contributed to a total of 644 traffic "events"--everything from minor incidents to collisions. (The study was conducted by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.)

The next biggest distractions, talking to other passengers or dealing with kids in the back seat, contributed to a total of 411 events. Despite the dangers, some 40 percent of cell phone use occurs while driving, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Surprise: It's Not About the Hands

You're still not surprised, I know. But maybe this will raise your eyebrows: Hands-free cell phone devices, such as earbuds and headsets, don't make it safer to use a phone while driving.

That's because the danger isn't necessarily related to having both hands on the wheel. Rather, conducting a phone conversation causes driver inattention, which in turn can lead to mishaps, according to the NHTSA. Drivers appear to be particularly prone to distraction during a lengthy phone chat.

What to Do?

I could tell you to never use your cell phone or other wireless gadget while driving--but I know you better than that. So here are some more realistic suggestions.

Don't look at the caller ID. Your smart phone or cell phone screen is probably too small for you to quickly see who's calling. So don't check for caller ID info while driving; it's just too distracting. If you're avoiding someone, you shouldn't be answering your cell phone anyway. Let incoming calls go to voice mail and retrieve the messages later.

Pull over to talk. If you must take a call while driving, ask the caller to hold, then pull over as soon as it's safe. Keep the conversation short and hang up before hitting the gas again. Need to make a call? Again, pull over. If you keep the conversation brief, you won't have lost much drive time.

Don't stop on the highway. It can be dangerous to pull over onto a highway shoulder to make a call (or for any other reason), and then merge back into fast-moving traffic. If you need to make a call while you're on the highway, get off at the nearest exit--but make sure the exit has an easy return. Combine your side trip with a visit to a restroom or gas station, so you won't feel like you've lost time.

Print out directions before you leave. If you get lost driving to an appointment, it's tempting to simply call the person you'll be meeting and ask for help. Printing out directions--to refer to only when you're parked or in Los Angeles traffic (there's no difference)--helps you avoid that temptation.

Use common sense. Stay aware of your surroundings as much as possible when you drive. Don't get carried away yakking on the phone. Keep both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road. And for heaven's sake, don't eat a burrito while talking on the cell phone and driving. If nothing else, it's impolite to talk with your mouth full.

Think instead of talking. So what do you do on a long drive instead of chatting on the phone? I'd suggest using the time to problem-solve. How often do you get the opportunity to think things through, anyhow? You might get so inspired, you want to write down your "Eureka." Restrain yourself, if possible, because scribbling while driving isn't exactly safe either. Here's another idea: Record a voice memo.

Record Your Thoughts

In my experience, the easiest way to record a memo is to use a Pocket PC's voice recorder. Pocket PC handhelds come with a Record utility that can be easily activated without needing to look at the PDA screen. Here's how.

First, you must have a hardware button on the PDA programmed to launch Record when pressed. There may already be a button programmed by default. If there isn't, on your Pocket PC, go to Start, Settings, Buttons and select the button you want to launch the Record utility. Later, even if your Pocket PC is turned off, you can simultaneously turn it on and launch the utility by pressing the button once. When you're ready to record, press and hold the button down. When you're done, release the button to stop recording.

Your recording will be saved as a .wav file named "Recording 1" by default. To listen to it, just click the file. The file will be stored in your Notes folder on your Pocket PC, which opens automatically when you launch the Record utility. If you need to look for the recording later--when you're not driving--go to Start, Home, Notes (the sequence may differ, depending on how your Pocket PC settings are configured). When you synchronize the PDA with your PC, the recordings will appear in the Notes folder within Microsoft Outlook.

You might want to e-mail the recording of your brainstorm to someone. In my experience it hasn't been easy to e-mail recordings created on a Pocket PC, but here's one way: Put the PDA in its sync cradle, and then, in Windows on your PC, go to Start, My Computer. Right-click the Mobile Device icon and click Explore. You should see the recording in the right side of the Windows Explorer window. Click and drag the file to a desired folder on your PC. In your e-mail program, create a new message and attach the file.

Know an easier way? Please send me e-mail.

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