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These hands-free phone tricks can prevent distracted driving

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 5/19/2017 Marc Saltzman

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Perhaps there’s one silver lining to battling the daily commute: you can stay productive and connected while behind the wheel – safely – thanks to today’s hands-free technology.  After all, holding a phone up to your ear can be a major distraction to those driving, while texting on a phone is even worse. Not only could you face a serious fine for distracted driving, but you might hurt yourself or others, or cause damage to your vehicle.  

Of course, the best thing to do is focus solely on driving and leave the phone in the glove box, but seasoned drivers who want to safely multitask have a few hands-free options to consider.

Bluetooth-enabled vehicles, speakerphones, headsets

If the vehicle doesn’t have Bluetooth, drivers might opt for an aftermarket Bluetooth speakerphone that slips over the sun visor, sits on the dashboard, or sticks to the windshield (a visor is recommended as the microphone will be closest to your mouth, and is less likely to fall off and distract you). Many GPS navigation units also have built-in Bluetooth, which turns it into a speakerphone, and some Bluetooth-enabled rear-view mirrors snap on top of your existing one.

While not as popular as they once were, a Bluetooth headset sits in or over the left or right ear. When a call comes in you can hear who is speaking, and they can hear you because of a tiny microphone not too far from your mouth. An advantage to a headset compared to an in-car solution is you can step out of the vehicle and continue the call.

CarPlay, Android Auto

While automakers still offer their own infotainment system, many are allowing drivers to use what they’re already most comfortable with: their smartphone.  With Apple’s CarPlay, plug in your iPhone and put it away as it’s charging up. Now your vehicle’s dashboard will resemble your familiar iOS homescreen, showing you many supported first-party apps – like Phone, Messages, Maps, and Music – and a growing selection of third-party apps, as well. For example, you can play music from Spotify or TuneIn Radio.

Press the push-to-talk button on the steering wheel to activate Siri, your personal assistant that resides on your phone, and give a command or ask a question like “Read me my texts,” “What’s the weather like tonight?,” “Take me to 123 Main Street” or “Play Drake.” When not driving, you can use the large app icons on the dashboard screen.

Similarly, Google’s Android Auto first has you connect your Android smartphone, and when you want to access something, press the button on the steering wheel, which activates Google Now, and then ask a question or give a command. You’ll have access to all of your contacts, messages, music, maps, and other info — while keeping your eyes on the road and hands upon the wheel, as the late Jim Morrison once famously sang.  There are also a couple of aftermarket CarPlay and Android Auto systems you can install in your vehicle.

Alexa to go

Powered in the home by devices like Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Amazon Tap, Amazon’s Alexa platform is a popular hands-free personal assistant for your home – where you say the wake word “Alexa,” and then ask a question or give a command. And now you can have access to Alexa during a commute to and from work, while doing errands, or when on a road trip.

Available to clip on an air vent ($59) or mount to a dashboard ($79), Logitech’s ZeroTouch Hands-free Car Mount magnetically locks onto the back of your Android smartphone or phone case, via thin metal adhesives you get in the box. Before you drive off, dock your phone to the Bluetooth-enabled ZeroTouch and it immediately launches the free Logitech Voice Assistant App. Now, whenever you want to access Alexa, simply lift your hand to give your phone a “high-five” in front of it, and then use your voice to play an audiobook, control your home’s lights, listen to news, get sports scores, and so on.

You can also perform tasks outside of Alexa, like ask to play text messages, place a call, get directions, hear music, and more.  Ford plans to add Alexa to some of its vehicles later this year.

Phone tips

A few assorted smartphone tips for drivers:

  • Set your phone to “auto answer” before you drive, so if a call comes in you don’t need to touch anything to take the call. Go into the Settings or Options for your phone (any make and model) to enable this.
  • For when you need to glance at your smartphone for, say, maps and directions, be sure to secure the device to your air vent, windshield, or dashboard. You can pick up a decent mount from your local dollar store, in fact.
  • Using your phone for directions or music streaming will eat up battery life, so be sure to plug your phone into the vehicle, which uses the car’s battery to keep your device topped up. If your car doesn’t have a USB port, you can use the 12V (“lighter”) port.
  • Even if it’s at a red light, resist sending even a quick text. It’s not worth it. If you need to type, pull over and put the car in park.
  • Remember, online services you may use on your phone while in the car will likely incur data charges, therefore ensure you have a decent “bucket” of monthly data you can use from your provider.

More from Marc Saltzman

Follow Marc on Twitter: @marc_saltzman. E-mail him at askmarcsaltzman@gmail.com.

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