OAKLAND, Calif. — One device will detect red light cameras. Another advertises it will read smartphone e-mails on a driver's voice command, while another blocks text messages altogether when on the road. Still another tracks where a car goes when another driver is at the wheel. Each supposedly makes driving easier and safer. • Based on the experiences of two reporters and the opinions of traffic safety experts, though, most motorists would be better off using self-discipline and communication rather than relying on expensive, and sometimes ineffective, technology to enforce safer driving. • Four devices were tested for price, ease of installation, performance and effectiveness. Three worked well, but at least one of them was of questionable safety value, and a fourth didn't work at all.
A red light camera detector available online for $80 to $130, plus shipping and other fees.
Resembling a flattened baby R2-D2 robot or an overgrown gray M&M, of all the devices tested, this was the easiest to install. The gadget, made by a San Ramon, Calif., firm plugs into the cigarette lighter. As the driver approaches an intersection with a red light camera, the contraption goes wild, flashing red lights and chirping.
GPS Angel might encourage people to stop at intersections with red light cameras, but it could also encourage other people to run red lights where there aren't any such cameras.
"If it's telling them there is a red light camera and they should stop, it's a good idea. But if it's telling them to run the red light, it's a stupid, dangerous thing to do," said Chris Cochran of the California Office of Highway Safety.
Cochran was more positive about iLane, which costs $250 and $400 online and only works with BlackBerry smartphones. This device, slightly larger and thicker than an iPhone, reads cell phone messages aloud.
It involves several pieces of hardware, including a Bluetooth headset and a charger. Installation was easy and the device read messages clearly in response to voice commands.
"It marginally is better (than retrieving messages manually), but our advice is to not use any mobile device at all because even when you are being read to, it still disconnects your brain and makes driving more hazardous," Cochran said of the Waterloo, Ontario, company's device. Some smartphones, including Verizon's LG enV, also read cell phone messages aloud, so check individual cell phone capabilities.
Key2SafeDriving does exactly what Cochran advocates. The gadget, which sells for about $100 online plus shipping and other fees, blocks cell phone calls and text messages sent to drivers.
Though it works on BlackBerrys, Palm Treo Pro and other phones, South Jordan, Utah-based Key2SafeDriving isn't compatible with the iPhone. After a session on the phone with the company's help desk, installation was successful, and a test proved that neither text messages nor phone calls got through while driving.
It should be noted that a friend of a Key2SafeDriving product tester was able to supply the commands for disabling it. The information appears to have spread among some teens.
"The really easy and cheap answer is turn them (cell phones) off," said Michael Geeser of AAA. "Consumers could save a lot of money if they simply turned their devices off or heeded a challenge AAA posed to motorists about a year ago: When you get into your vehicle, put your cell phone in the trunk and take it out of the equation."
Youth Driving Safe GPS
A GPS unit from Dallas-based Youth Driving Safe selling for about $370 online plus shipping and fees, lets parents track children when they use the car.
By checking information fed online, parents can learn the car's speed and location in real time. In a test, no information was captured on the website. The company was unable to solve the problem. Randy Safford, the company's chief executive, offered to send a new unit, but too late for deadline.
"Without putting thumbs up or down on this product itself, the simplest route would be to have an honest conversation with your teen," Geeser said.
Bottom line: "If you drive safely and obey the law, these devices won't be necessary."