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Hands Off!

Ontario's new handheld cell phone ban means that just about half the country now prohibits texting, typing, e-mailing, dialing or holding a phone while driving. Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and L...

Ontario’s new handheld cell phone ban means that just about half the country now prohibits texting, typing, e-mailing, dialing or holding a phone while driving. Quebec, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador have all gone this route, as have California, New York, and about 50 countries worldwide.

According to the legislation, you’ll still be able to use your cell phone if you have a device that allows you to push a button to connect it to a headphone or speaker. The simplest form of hands-free talking can be accomplished with the little ear bud speakers and microphone that come with most cell phones. Nothing high tech about it – and it’s legal as long as you only use one earphone and click a lapel pin to connect with a caller. But the dangling wire is awkward and annoying for most professional drivers who are preoccupied with shifting gears and constantly moving their heads to get the big picture.

Truck drivers are no strangers to technology, and cell phones have been a part of their work and social culture for years. With more of them packing Blackberries and iPhones, headsets were becoming common among commercial drivers anyway. But the new Ontario regulations have sent motorists and truckers alike scurrying to acquire hands-free devices.

So I wasn’t surprised that the Flying J in Napanee was almost completely sold out of Bluetooth headsets when I stopped in one recent night.

Bluetooth is the technology that allows one electronic device to communicate with another with no wires or cables in between. It’s the best way to achieve hands-free communication, and just about every cell phone these days is Bluetooth-enabled. In fact, most of the high-end headsets also have the capability of linking the cell phone camera to a printer, or to an iPod.

Hands-free communications technology is a big deal these days. There are hundreds of earpieces on the market with many more brands and models jumping in every day. The prices vary widely, from about $29 to $159. Most of the cheap ones sound tinny or have a lot of echo, and are not much good for commercial drivers.

Another option is a Bluetooth speaker system which can be clipped on the sun visor and engaged with the push of the fingertip. The Parrot Minikit is an interesting product since it has a voice recognition feature which allows for less button pushing and more talking. The Minikit is completely portable and can be moved between car and truck. It retails for around $80-85. Three hours charging time is supposed to yield 10 hours talking time, or a week on standby mode.

The speaker kits come with an omni-directional microphone, but none of them appear to have a noise-cancelling feature which, in my view, is important when conversing hands-free in a truck.

Lots of ambient noise in a truck cab, from electrical interference and motor noise, to the thrum of 18 wheels on the pavement. Bluetooth speakers seem to be much better suited for motorists than truckers. But if you do want to go with a Bluetooth speaker system, you might want to invest in the high-end Jabra or Blackberry models, about $130-140 retail, and even then transmission or reception could be poor.

Cobra, the most famous name in CB radios, has also jumped on the bandwagon and introduced a hands-free CB with Bluetooth. The 29LTDBT models costs about $40 more than a standard CB and can be paired with a cell phone to handle calls.

When your phone rings, a click of the mic enables you to talk directly through the radio. Citizen Band radios and two-ways are exempt from the Ontario rules for now, “to allow a three-year phase-out period for hands-free alternatives to be developed.”

But this leaves CB makers like Cobra in quandary: while Ontario wants hands-free CBs in three years, the opposite is true in the States.

“We are working on solutions for that since FCC rules do not allow a hands-free transmitter,” says Ramon Sandoval of Cobra Electronics.

Most truck drivers who spend a lot of time talking on the phone while driving, whether for business or pleasure, prefer the full wraparound headsets to the cheaper ear clips. If you’re spending long sessions on the cell phone you need something comfortable with long battery life.

Several manufacturers sent me samples of the top noise-cancelling headsets and I passed them out among my fellow linehaul drivers at Purolator who “road tested” them for me.

If you’d rather go with an ear clip piece without a microphone boom, you might consider the top end Jawbone Prime which comes with a “noise assassin” feature. These are about $135, and colleague Harveen Bajwa rates it as “excellent” for truck use. It’s just a simple ear clip weighing a few grams, the lightest of all the models tested.

The Plantronics Voyager Pro rates a close look as it has several built in noise-and wind-cancelling systems. A high quality earpiece for about $100, it sports a 90s retrolook, but is also extremely light with the battery pack mounted behind the ear.

Only six hours talking time, but it doesn’t take as long to charge as the Blue Parrott or Blue Eagle II. Fellow driver Dave Glidden likes the shorter boom mic that allows him to eat while wearing the headset, and he experienced no discomfort after wearing it for long periods. Greg Manchester would have liked more volume out of it, though.

The CBTH1 Deluxe Bluetooth headset is Cobra’s answer to a heavy-duty headset. According to the promotional video, you can talk on it while someone is operating a chain saw a few feet away. I’m planning on trying this next time I’m in the bush.

Adjustable to fit either ear, it features its own type of noise-cancelling technology, which would be useful when working outside with noisy equipment and it boasts up to eight hours talk time. Manchester found it comfortable with very good sound quality.

He also liked the fact that the Cobra can be charged while in use from the cigarette lighter (about $90).

The Blue Parrott Road Warrior B250TK got the best marks technically from all three drivers. Manchester liked the easily accessible controls and, “It’s the only set where I can turn the volume button way up so it’s too loud.”

Glidden thought the Parrott was very good in most ways, but found the sound got distorted on high volume and that the set hurt his ear after wearing it more than three hours. It’s the leader in battery life with 16-plus hours talk time.

Blue Parrott is available from CTS ( for $119, but accounts manager Andy Bernier tells me they may have volume discount prices available for owner/operators or fleets.

Blue Eagle II was the only noise-cancelling headset that wasn’t road-tested because I couldn’t get one on short notice. By most accounts it’s a very good headset with lots of talk time (up to 14 hours).

Some mixed reviews online, including grumbling about charging problems and quality control. It costs US$109 online, but Denis Dion of Pana-Pacific reminds us that Bluetooth products for trucks, including the Blue Parrott and Blue Eagle II, are readily available at Canadian truck dealers, who need our support as much as anyone during these tough times.

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