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New research from psychologists at the University of Sussex has that found driving while talking on a hands-free phone can be just as distracting as talking on a hand-held mobile.

The study found that drivers who are engaged in conversations that spark their visual imagination are much less able to spot and react to potential hazards. When the drivers involved in the study were asked about a subject that required them to visualise it, they focused on a smaller area of the road ahead of them and failed to see hazards, even when they looked directly at them.

Brake, the road safety charity, is now renewing its calls for the Government to look again at the laws on driving and mobile phone use.

Previous research has estimated that up to 22% of crashes could be caused by some kind of distraction, and that drivers who perform a secondary task at the wheel, like using a mobile phone, are up to three times more likely to crash.In addition, the effect of talking on a phone while driving has been shown to be worse than drinking certain amounts of alcohol.

As well as disproving the popular misconception that using a mobile while driving is safe as long as it’s hands-free, the researchers found there were some important differences between a hands-free conversation and a chatty passenger. A passenger will usually moderate the conversation when road hazards appear, whereas someone on the other end of a phone is oblivious to the other demands on the driver and so keeps talking.

“Distracted driving is a major cause of road crashes; pulling the drivers’ attention away from the road and potential hazards, and potentially leading to fatal outcomes,” Brake’s Research Advisor Lucy Amos said.“This new study is the latest of many which adds weight to extending the existing legislation to cover all mobile phone use within a vehicle, not just the use of hand-held mobile devices.”