Hands-free driving guide: Smart phone-dumb car? Dumb phone-smart car? Here’s a how-to
ST. PAUL -- If all goes as expected, Minnesota will become a “hands-free” state Aug. 1, when a major new restriction on cellphones will take effect.
On Tuesday, the state House approved the proposed new restrictions with widespread bipartisan support. The Senate is expected to approve it as well, possibly as soon as Thursday. Gov. Tim Walz has said he’ll sign it into law when it's approved.
For many, this will be a major, even unsettling, change in how we roll when we drive.
We’ve heard the questions: “I have an older car that doesn’t talk to me. How will this affect me?” Or “I know I have a smartphone but I don’t understand how to use it without my hands.”
Remember, Minnesota isn’t the first state to do this. Almost half of America has figured this out — and traffic deaths have fallen for most of those states. You got this.
No matter what your scenario is, here are the important things to remember:
- The best way to think of it is this: You can’t use a cellphone when you’re in traffic, whether it’s moving or stopped, unless …
- It’s those unlesses we all want to understand, although many safety advocates say it’s safest to just turn the thing off or put it in airplane or “do not disturb” mode when you get in your car.
- Once you’re in traffic, you can only touch the device with a “single touch.” This can be turning it on, swiping to answer a call, pressing to activate Siri to tell your phone to call someone, tapping to accept a new navigation route, and so on. But you won’t be able to do this: tap the phone icon, then tap “recent calls,” then tap one of the numbers. That would be illegal — and it’s dangerous, safety experts say.
- “Hands-free” means hands-off, except for those single-touch things. You can keep the phone in a chest pocket, or a headscarf that clamps it to your cheek, or a holder that attaches to the dashboard, or the cup holder. Wherever. You are allowed to grab it to hand it to your whiny kid in the backseat, but that’s only allowed because you’re not accessing any of the features of the phone.
- You can still use your phone for driving directions, but if you’re going to need to look at the phone’s screen from time to time, you won’t be able to grab it out of the cup holder. So get a holder that clips to a vent or suction cups to the windshield, like those Uber drivers all have. (Non-phone GPS devices like Tom Tom are completely exempt; you’ll still be able to use those just like today.)
- All bets are off in an emergency. If you need to call 911, you’re allowed to pick up the phone and dial by hand.
Here are the four scenarios.
Smart phone, smart car
This is the best scenario. Your car and your phone were made for each other. Once you get set up, you probably won’t even need to take your phone out of your pocket.
Your phone and vehicle will communicate with each other via Bluetooth, a short-range wireless standard using radio waves. You will need to “pair” your car and phone together, which will require a few actions on each. Usually takes a minute or two. The other way to integrate your phone into your car is via a USB cable that plugs into both the vehicle and your phone.
Once set up, your car will be like a remote control for your phone. It will even import contacts if you let it. You’ll probably be able to start a call by touching controls on your steering wheel. Using these buttons will be allowed under the new law. Most cars have a voice button that allows you to say the number or name of person you want to contact. Anything hardwired into your vehicle will be legal to use.
Some new cars can read you your text messages and you can respond by speaking a text message back. It’s debatable how distracting this is, but it will be allowed under the new law.
And navigation, music, podcasts, streaming audio — no video — of TED talks … you’re golden.
How to: Three suggestions: 1. Type or say “how to connect <your vehicle> to Bluetooth” into any search engine; 2. Read your vehicle manual; 3. Ask your grandkid, or anyone who looks “young.”
Headaches: If you use FaceTime, Skype or other ways of voice calling, you may or may not be able to do that while driving any more. No video stream is allowed — even if you’re not watching — and you need to be able to operate in that one-touch mode.
Smart phone, dumb car
Don’t worry, this will work. Depending on how dumb your car really is, you might be able to integrate the phone more than you think and use many of its features.
If your vehicle isn’t Bluetooth-enabled, using your phone to call someone will have to be a little old-school.
How to: To talk on the phone, you’ve got two options:
- Speakerphone mode. This can be either OK or awful depending on how loud your car is. Your call. Pretty much every cellphone has a speakerphone mode.
- Get an earpiece/headset and microphone. This can be one that plugs into your phone or connects wirelessly via Bluetooth from your phone to the earpiece/mic. Prices range from $10 to more than $100. Important: You can only have an earpiece in one ear in Minnesota. This is because of other laws designed to make sure we can hear things like sirens and horns.
To integrate the phone’s other features, what you’re looking for is a way to connect your phone to your vehicle with a cable, usually an auxiliary input jack marked “AUX.” In most vehicles, this only carries the audio output, which is useful for hearing your tunes or driving directions through the car’s speakers. However, if you plan to talk on the phone, you’d have to unplug the cable.
Headaches: Depending on your device, screen locks might make it impossible to wake up your device with a single touch. Check your phone’s settings; a single thumbprint is ok, but entering a 6-digit unlock code would appear to violate the single-touch rule.
Dumb phone, smart car
Your phone probably won’t be able to talk to your car too much, but your car itself might be able to do things — legally — without your phone.
First, check the phone for Bluetooth capabilities. There were several years when Bluetooth was installed in what we’d now call dumb phones.
How to: To talk on a non-Bluetooth phone, you’ll have to make sure you can do so with a “single touch,” according to the bill. Owners of older cellphones might be surprised that many do have a voice command system, often activated by the push of one button on the phone. To be able to answer a call with a “single touch” or have access to the voice commands, you might have to leave a flip phone open. Check your phone’s manual for how these work. And remember, you’ll need to either use the phone in speakerphone mode or with an earpiece and microphone. In old cellphones without Bluetooth, you’ll have to get an earpiece or headset with a cable that plugs into the phone.
To use your smart car’s features, you just need to get to know your vehicle. Many new cars have built-in navigation systems and music apps and they might even connect to the internet on their own. All these features that are hardwired into your car can be used.
Headaches: Some old phones with Bluetooth have settings that are be too old to pair with newer cars. Depending on how old that phone is, you might not be able to use it when driving. Or you might have to pull over to dial a number or answer a call.
Dumb phone, dumb car
This is the worst scenario.
You’re basically in the “dumb phone, smart car” scenario from above, except that you’re guaranteed to have no options hard-wired to the car.
You’ll need an earpiece and microphone to talk, and you might not be able to answer or place calls when driving anymore, but at least you won’t be distracted.
Let’s face it, might be time for a new phone.