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Who taught YOU to drive?

A holiday wish list for hands-free texting behind the wheel

By Peter DeMarco
December 6, 2009

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We all know that it’s dangerous to text on a cellphone while driving. Study after study proves it, and everyone from carmakers to cellphone companies is clamoring not to do it. New Hampshire and Rhode Island are among the latest states to outlaw the practice, and AAA and Verizon, among others, are calling for a national ban.

A ban will help end the practice, but texting is addictive, and those with less self-control - teenagers, perhaps - may have a hard time abiding.

Fortunately, budding technologies are offering another solution. Products abound that enable drivers to speak aloud a text or e-mail message, or listen to one being read, without having to type on their phones. With speech-recognition or “voice-to-text’’ technology, drivers can keep their eyes on the road.

Other products intentionally jam text messages, both incoming and outgoing, while driving. Ford’s new Sync system transfers your cellphone’s functions to buttons on your steering wheel, a purer “hands-free’’ concept than even a Bluetooth headset.

No one’s invented the perfect mousetrap yet. Nearly all voice-to-text systems are plagued by transcription errors - you say potato, and it’s transcribed as “parade no.’’ Other services have limited features, or are costly. But with the holiday shopping season here, you might want to consider purchasing one for your favorite text-a-holic. Maybe that’s your husband, your boss, your daughter, or yourself.

Here are some options to consider, in no particular order. I strongly recommend viewing demonstration videos on YouTube and reading user reviews before making any purchase.

■Voice on the Go

One of the more popular voice-to-text products out there, Voice on the Go almost lets you do it all: speak text and e-mail messages, Facebook posts and Tweets; listen to, delete, or forward e-mail messages; dial phone numbers with just your voice. You simply call the company’s local access number, turn on your headset or switch your phone to loudspeaker mode, and follow the computer prompts. Voice on the Go works with all phones on all networks, and an audio file accompanies each e-mail so recipients can listen if the transcription is unclear.

On the negative side, the system only lets you send text messages - you can’t receive any - and you can only text people on your contact list.

The monthly fee is $6.

■Vlingo Plus

Vlingo, a Cambridge startup, doesn’t market itself as a product for drivers, but I’m including it on this list because it certainly can assist you while driving, and it’s representative of a growing genre of similar smart-phone applications.

With Vlingo Plus, you simply push and hold down a button while issuing your command - “Text Helen: Let’s meet for lunch’’ or “Twitter: I’m dying for chocolate’’ or “Web search: dominoes.’’ You then press send and the app carries out your request. For sure, Vlingo has its limitations. You can only contact people on your contact list, you can’t listen to incoming texts and e-mails, and outgoing texting and e-mail isn’t available for all phones yet. But as an easy, send-only service with a one-time fee of $18, it has potential.

■ DriveSafe.ly

DriveSafe.ly, which is also the product’s Internet address, boasts more than 750,000 users and is the focal point of Verizon’s “Don’t Text and Drive’’ campaign. You don’t need a Verizon phone to use it, but you do need a smart phone that can run the application: the current list includes iPhone, Blackberry, and Android and Windows mobile platforms. After launching the app, Drivesafe.ly reads aloud in real time any text messages and e-mails you receive while driving. It does not let you send any outgoing messages. Instead, it automatically lets whoever’s messaging you know that you can’t respond because you’re driving.

The free version lets you hear just the first 25 words of a message. The “Pro’’ version, which has a one-time charge of $14, lets you hear up to 500 words.

■ Ford Sync

Naturally, you need to buy a new Ford to get this service. But it’s only a matter of time before other carmakers follow suit, if some haven’t already. Sync uses Bluetooth wireless technology to transfer the controls of your phone to an onboard computer. You use a button on the steering wheel to make phone calls and listen to text messages, with the car’s radio speakers providing the sound.

The system isn’t as sophisticated as others on this list: while the computer reads loud incoming text messages, you can only respond using one of 15 generic messages, and there’s no e-mail option.

On the plus side, Sync also acts as a GPS device, speaking directions aloud, and can give you traffic, news, and weather updates upon verbal command. (It also lets you verbally operate MP3 players.) Sync is normally a $395 add-on, with no subscription fee.

■Voice Assist

Voice Assist is very similar to Voice on the Go, but at $5 a month, it’s a buck cheaper, and it really will let you do everything, including sending and listening to text messages. The catch is that it won’t be available for a few more months, so you’d have to give this gift as an IOU. Still, you can sign up today for a free, 60-day demo.

Jott Assistant

Jott Assistant is in the same category as Voice Assist. You dial a number and start telling the Jott computer what you want to do. Jott’s catch is that it only lets you send texts and e-mails; you can’t listen to incoming messages. However, Jott does let you leave posts on an unrivaled variety of websites, including Facebook, Twitter, Live Journal, Google and Outlook calendars, Amazon.com, and Quickbooks. It also acts as a dictation machine to record your thoughts, and plays RSS news feeds.

For $4 per month you can leave messages up to 15 seconds. The $13 monthly plans lets you leave 30-second messages.

■DriveAssist

DriveAssist automatically holds all your calls, e-mails, and text messages while you’re driving. You do absolutely nothing: the product “senses’’ when your phone is in motion and disables it until you step out of the car. Understandably, DriveAssist is being marketed to parents of teen drivers who don’t want their children texting or chatting while driving. It offers moms and dads considerable control: they can override the system to let their own calls go through and can get updated GPS information about the whereabouts of their children. (Computer voice: “Johnny is at the corner of Main and Elm Street.’’)

Unfortunately, DriveAssist won’t be available until next summer. It will cost between $5 and $10 a month, though Nationwide Insurance will be offering discounts to families who use it.

Somerville resident Peter DeMarco can be reached at demarco@globe.com. He also updates a Facebook page, ’’WhotaughtYOUtodrive?’’