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Auto accessory shops are reporting a more than 10-fold jump in sales of hands-free devices for cell phones ahead of a ban on phone use while driving that kicks in Monday.

The shops are devoting twice the usual shelf space to such gadgets.

“Most buyers are people who drive cars for business, like sales reps on the road,” said Masato Uchida, a store clerk at auto accessory shop Super Autobacs Kawasaki.

“They have to pick up incoming business calls even while driving.”

According to Autobacs Seven Co., operator of over 500 stores in Japan, sales of hands-free devices have shot up since around June, with September posting a more than 10-fold year-on-year growth.

Earphones are popular, given their relatively low price of about 1,000 yen. Speakers are sold for between 3,000 yen and 5,000 yen.

Under the revised Road Traffic Law, people caught holding a cell phone — whether to talk or look at the display — while driving will be punished with fines of up to 50,000 yen.

Using a cell phone behind the wheel has been prohibited since Nov. 1, 1999. But in practice, few people have been caught because the law stipulated that it is punishable only when the police determined that the use of the phone “caused danger to traffic,” such as a car accident. This latest regulation will enable police to charge drivers for simply holding their handsets.

Yamato Transport Co., a major parcel delivery firm, said it will install hands-free devices in all of its 34,000 home delivery trucks.

For the firm, which faces competition from state-run Japan Post, cell phones are one of the weapons they use to differentiate themselves from rivals.

The company said drivers can respond more quickly and flexibly if clients who receive delivery slips during their absence call them directly instead of calling dispatch centers.

Starting Monday, Yamato will distribute flyers telling customers that they can call their trucks directly for parcel pick-ups. Since drivers are assigned small areas, it will be easy to reply to pick-up calls on short notice.

But Yamato said the installment of hands-free gadgets does not mean it is encouraging phone use while driving.

“Our instructions to our drivers are to park their trucks when they pick up calls,” said Masahisa Oba, Yamato spokesman. “Besides, our home delivery truck drivers do not spend as much time behind the wheel as you might imagine.”

While auto accessory shops are happy with the latest boom, they said they are not promoting hands-free devices as a risk-free way to talk on the phone while driving.

Tomokazu Abe, a merchandiser at Yellow Hat Ltd., another operator of an accessory store chain, said: “First of all, drivers are advised not to use cell phones. Even with hands-free devices, cell phones divert their attention.”

But Yellow Hat is also seeing a more than 10-fold year-on-year sales increase of hands-free products this month.

Meanwhile, at Super Autobacs Kawasaki, clerk Uchida said he suspects the hands-free boom will die out quickly if drivers find the ban is not aggressively enforced by traffic cops.

“The same thing happened to child safety seats,” sales eventually dropped off, he said, referring to four years ago, when their use was mandated. (T.U.)

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