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VOICE-ACTIVATED DIALING PREVENTS DRIVING TO DISTRACTION

There was no close call, no near miss on the road that served as a warning.

But the cellular phone user, a Buffalo-based consultant, signed up for a voice-activated dialing feature anyway last October to make his commute safer.

"Basically I got it for one purpose: To cut down on the amount of time I have to take my eyes away from the road," said the man, who asked not to be identified.

"Particularly when you're dialing long-distance, dialing one plus 10 digits -- you're just not focusing on what you should be doing when you're in a car."

Some mobile phone companies hope to alleviate concerns about traffic safety with a voice-command system that lets callers dial without using their hands or looking away from the road.

Drivers are an important source of cell phone "air time," pitting the industry against moves to prohibit drivers' phone use. But so far, few customers have opted for voice dialing, and traffic researchers aren't convinced it will be a silver bullet for distracted drivers.

"Until we know more, I don't think that they should say that it (hands-free dialing) is safer," said John Violanti, an associate professor of criminal justice at the Rochester Institute of Technology who studies cell phone safety.

Frontier Cellular started promoting its "TalkDial" service last October, holding the price to $2.95 a month to spur usage, product director Tim Wrona said. The company, a partnership between Bell Atlantic and Frontier Corp. in Rochester, is one of three mobile phone service providers on the Niagara Frontier.

"Do people come in feeling their phone is unsafe? That doesn't come to us from customers," Wrona said. "But in focus groups, people say that when they do feel unsafe is when they're dialing."

The company's move comes as concern about mixing traffic and telecommunications reaches a new pitch. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported in January that using a phone while driving heightens the risk of an accident. Results from other researchers have said that phone
use as much as quadruples accident risk.

This month, a proposal was introduced in the state Senate that would outlaw phone use while driving, except in emergencies. Several other states are considering similar measures, while Brazil, Switzerland and Austria have already banned hand-held phones in vehicles.

Restrictions on car phone use worry the cellular industry, which depends on drivers for a big chunk of sales. Frontier estimates that about 60 percent of its call volume involves a moving vehicle, Wrona said.

Past industry estimates have put the fraction of air time involving vehicles at 80 percent, although the proportion may be declining as mobile phone use increases outside of cars.

Here's how hands-free dialing works:

Callers activate the voice mode of Frontier's "TalkDial" service by pressing two buttons; then they speak into the phone the digits of the number they're calling. The spoken commands are translated into dialing instructions by a computer linked to the mobile phone switching office.

In addition, callers can store up to 20 phone numbers under one-word commands. Saying the command -- "Tom" or "Joan" or "Office" -- into the phone dials the corresponding number.

Surveys by Frontier showed that 36 percent of customers were interested in voice dialing, Wrona said. But only about 2 percent of the company's 330,000 subscribers have opted for TalkDial so far, despite the relatively low monthly surcharge of $2.95, he said.

"We priced it as low as we could, and still have it pay back in a reasonable period," he said.

Cellular One, a competitor with Frontier in the Buffalo area, is looking at voice dialing, but is waiting until the technology improves to the point that it may attract more customers, said spokeswoman Karen Markel-Liberatore.

"What's been found is that, while it sounds appealing, the customer take-rate has not been high at all," Ms. Markel-Liberatore said.

Until the voice recognition improves, Cellular One recommends using holders and speakerphones as well as common-sense usage rules, such as letting voice-mail answer the phone in traffic, she said.

Sprint Personal Communications Service, the third area mobile phone service, offers hands-free sets for use in the car, but isn't looking at voice dialing at the moment, spokesperson Julie Rosenthal said.

PCS users aren't as tightly associated with car phones as cellular technology, she said. PCS subscribers frequently carry their phones with them everywhere, talking in elevators or on the street.

While it says the link between phones and accidents is unproven, the Cellular Telephone Industry Association in Washington, D.C., is urging customers to use caution. The industry has lunched a public information campaign aimed at the nation's 57 million mobile phone users, Communications Director Jeffrey Nelson said.

At the same time, the industry is pointing out the safety benefits of cellular phones for making emergency calls, reporting roadside hazards and for crime prevention.

"There are already laws on the books that apply to distracted drivers, and these laws apply to phone use," Nelson said.

States that have considered laws against mixing traffic and telecommunications have often backed away from the issue, he said. Once discussion begins, lawmakers often find that it would be unfair to single out cell phones in a world where drivers face proliferating distractions.

"Once state legislatures get into the discussion, they usually say 'Why treat cell phone users differently than makeup users or map readers or CD players,' " Nelson said.

In Western New York, police didn't know of any traffic tragedies that were linked to cell phone use -- but neither are they discounting the phones as a safety issue.

"I've stopped people for going through a stop sign or a red light when they were on the phone," said Capt. Martin J. Jurewicz of the Buffalo Police Department Traffic Bureau.

While New York law addresses distracted driving, the standards for proof are difficult to meet, he said. But there is precedent for restricting use of some devices while driving, he said. For example, drivers may wear audio headphones on one ear, but not both, Jurewicz said.

The cellular industry association says more study is needed to determine whether phone use is a driving hazard, as well as how to reduce risk. Hands-free dialing may be one measure to reduce the growing demands on drivers' attention from many different sources, both inside and outside the vehicle, Nelson said.

"Our response has been to educate our consumers -- the important thing is to drive safely," Nelson said. "People need to make the best decisions about what that means for themselves."

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