Hands-free kits for vehicles are supposed to remove the dangers that come with driving while conducting a phone call. But new research from psychologists has found that having a hands-free conversation is just as distracting for drivers as holding a phone in their hands.

A research team from the University of Sussex in the UK found that when drivers had conversations that required them to visualize what they were talking about, they were using the part of the brain used to watch the road.

The researchers say the study indicated that conversations can take up more of the brain’s visual processing power than previously thought, causing drivers to miss dangers they would have normally noticed.

The experiment involved 20 male and 40 female volunteers taking part in video tests while sitting in a car seat behind a steering wheel. One group was allowed to ‘drive’ undisturbed, while another two groups were asked questions from a loudspeaker placed 3 feet away.

On average, those engaged in conversations took just under a second longer to respond to hazards such as pedestrians stepping out into the road and swerving cars. It was discovered that when drivers were asked to recall something, like where they left an item, they concentrated on an area four times smaller than normal because they were picturing the room where they left it.

The lead researcher said the results make a case for all cell phone use – both hand-held and hands-free - to be banned from vehicles.

If drivers are so easily distracted by conversations, maybe we should consider a ban on talking to passengers? Thankfully (or sadly, depending on who you’re in a car with) this won’t be necessary; according to researchers, talking to another person isn’t as distracting because both people stop the conversation when a driver needs to concentrate.

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