Monday, June 28, 2004

Area electronics stores are stocking up on mobile-phone headsets to prepare for a D.C. law that will make holding a phone to the ear while driving illegal and costly.

Driving while talking without a hands-free mobile phone device — as well as applying makeup and fumbling with compact discs will prompt a $100 ticket when the Distracted Driving Safety Act goes into effect Thursday. While police will only give warnings the first month, most District electronics stores are already reporting at least a mild increase in sales.

About three out of four customers who visit the wireless department of Best Buy in Arlington are looking for headsets, said Desmond Dove, a wireless representative.

Mr. Dove said interest in headsets has jumped during the past week, but that sales had already been high.

“People liked them anyway,” Mr. Dove said. “It’s safer to drive with the headsets.”

Maryland resident Aaron Martin tries not to pick up his cell phone during his commute into the District. He is worried about driving safely, as well as other drivers who chat while navigating the roadways.

Now that the law is going into effect, he is considering buying a headset.

“No conversation is important enough to get a $100 ticket for,” Mr. Martin said.

Similar motivations are bringing people into the Radio Shack at 3323 Connecticut Ave. NW, where headset sales have been up for about a month, said Hailu, the manager, who declined to give his last name.

Sales representatives are alerting customers to the law, but most people already are aware of it, he said.

Plantronics’ over-the-ear headset is the most popular of the 12 kinds, he said.

Headsets come in several designs — over the ear, above the ear, in the ear and partially in the ear. Most options are available at electronics and wireless-phone stores.

Nonheadset options include boom mikes that are held in the ear and a hands-free power connector, which is plugged into the cigarette lighter.

Headsets are by far the most popular option, said Billie Huntley, regional marketing manager of Verizon Wireless, the largest U.S. cell-phone company.

Generic headsets start at $10, and two-packs are available from the company for $19.95, which multicar users like. A variety of styles and options are sold for $35. Speakerphone adaptors are about $70.

“What they need for the July 1 deadline is available for as low as $10. Considering it’s a $100 fine, it’s definitely worth spending,” Ms. Huntley said.

Local Verizon Wireless stores have been preparing for an increase in handset sales by stocking up on inventory, Ms. Huntley said, although she did not have exact figures. A similar law going into effect in New Jersey and an existing law in New York banning hand-held phones while driving have increased headset sales across the Mid-Atlantic region.

Beyond the legal ramifications of driving without a headset, Verizon representatives say they hope to send a safe-driving message. They encourage customers to let their calls go to voice mail while driving and to program frequently used numbers so they hit only one button to dial.

T-Mobile and AT&T Wireless both provide hands-free earpieces with all of their handsets, and have for at least three years, company spokesmen said.

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