A Short Rant About the Current State of "Hands Free"


Nov 20, 2009
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I have Vlingo on my Galaxy Nexus, but it doesn't do me much good because the Nexus doesn't have an available "hardware button." My previous phone -- an original Droid -- had a physical-mechanical "camera" button which could be reassigned to other functions such as starting up Vlingo. The Nexus does not. It has a power button and a volume rocker. This means executing a voice command with Vlingo requires (1) pressing the power button to turn on the screen, (2) sliding to unlock the screen, (3) tapping an icon to start the Vlingo app, (4) touching yet another button within Vlingo to get the app to listen for a command, and (5) dictating the command. That is five (5) separate steps, four of which require touching the phone with at least one hand. This is simply unacceptable while driving. Given recent government announcements about the supposed evils of conducting even a hands-free conversation on a cell phone while driving, I am beginning to think it's not a coincidence that using a cell without touching it is becoming harder and harder with every new hardware and software release.

On one hand, the engineers who design these devices seem to be on a crusade to wipe out hardware buttons, which they obviously regard as medieval holdovers. They think the touchscreen is the greatest development since electricity and they can't or won't tolerate anyone using anything other than their precious touchscreen to control the device. If it was up to these engineers, we would use telepathy to turn the phone on and off so they could do away with that button, too.

On the other hand, those same engineers don't have to listen to my rant about this because it has become fashionable to demonize anyone who wants to use a cell while driving -- even in hands-free mode. Bluetooth handsets have been available for years, but it doesn't seem that people have been buying them. I don't know if this was because they were buying el cheapo feature phones that didn't have Bluetooth, or because they refused to plunk down the extra money for the headset, or because they thought these Spock/Uhura-like devices made them look dorky. All I know is I see a lot of people driving around in my area using one hand to press a handset up to their ears.

And probably because of people's refusal to embrace headsets voluntarily, the federal government is now leaning hard on state and local governments to ban ALL cell use -- even hands-free. The NHTSA claims that you can't safely talk on a cell while driving because listening and talking to the other person is supposedly too distracting from operating the vehicle. I admit I haven't read the studies and am not in a position to do a study of my own. But that isn't the point, because it's naive to think you can legislate or regulate a distraction-free environment in a car. What's next after we ban all cell use? Am I going to have to gag my passengers so they can't talk while I'm driving? Are we going to decree that noisy little kids have to be left at home? Do we ban the vehicle-mounted DVD players people use to keep the kids entertained in the back seat? Do we ban the car stereos we use to keep the driver and adult passengers entertained? In my opinion, all of these are equally unreasonable. It's especially unreasonable when it appears -- based only on my own empirical observations -- that society has basically no experience with whether hands-free cell use is safer, because we have been allowing people to drive around with cheap feature phones pressed up to their ears with one hand.

Which brings me back to the beginning of my rant. Is hands-free cell use unsafe because the damn engineers refuse to make the phone one-handable, or are the damn engineers refusing to make the phone one-handable because they think the government is going to moot the whole thing by banning all cell use in cars?