BOSTON — Crossing a street in Boston is a bit like running with the bulls in Spain. This is especially true when you're trying to dodge the cellular phone users behind the wheel.
Red lights, yield signs, crosswalks, are often mere annoyances to many of these distracted drivers. Perhaps that's why they have the same accident rate as people who drink and drive, according to a 1997 article in the New England Journal of Medicine.
What these people need is truly mobile communication - something that won't cost an outrageous amount to install and would let them talk and keep both hands on the wheel. Well, that something might just be a little device called the JABRA Earset.
The earset is a unidirectional microphone and speaker about the size of the first knuckle of your pinkie. It fits snugly in the ear and connects to the cellular phone through a wire. It picks up sound as it travels across the face. And it really works.
At first I didn't believe it would. So I literally walked and drove all over Boston calling people I knew. Each time the JABRA Earpiece performed well. People said they could hear me clear as a bell, although it sounded as if I was talking on a speaker phone. On my end, I heard them better than I ever had on a cellular phone.
Using it, however, did produce some interesting looks. Once I made a call while eating at a restaurant and the waiter gave me that worried smile he probably gives everyone who seems to spend the entire meal talking to themselves.
The JABRA Earset wasn't perfect. It was hard to use on the street. It would pick up wind, noises, and other sounds because it sits slightly outside the ear. Also, talking to someone who isn't in the car is still far more distracting that talking to someone sitting beside you.
And you have to dial the number and switch off the phone when you're finished, so you're still going to need your hands at some point. (That may not last long, however. The folks at JABRA told me that they are currently working with cellular phone companies to test an earset that would allow you to tell your phone what number to dial, to turn off, etc.)
And while I like JABRA (at about $40, it is also reasonably priced), it raised some of those old misgivings about privacy. Cellular phone calls need some form of encryption so that personal conversations can't be picked up by just anyone who owns a receiver.
But in all honesty, I'm not sure if I like the idea of people walking around the streets "talking to themselves." We already distance ourselves from one another in the public space. It will just seem more so when we can't even see if someone is using a cellular phone.
Yet cellular phones are here to stay. And the JABRA Earset may be the first step to helping pedestrians like me know that crossing the street doesn't have to be a hair-raising activity.
* Tom Regan is supervising online editor of the Monitor's Electronic Edition (www.csmonitor.com). His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org