New research suggests that drivers using hands-free devices behind the wheel are as distracted as those using hand-held devices.

The study, conducted by scientists at the University of Sussex, found that motorists engaged in conversations that require visualisation were slower to react to risks and hazards in their path.

As part of the research, 60 volunteers were asked to participate in a driving simulation exposing them to different levels of distraction. This included some participants driving undistracted, while others were asked to give true or false responses to visual and verbal statements.

It was found that those with visual distractions performed the worst. Participants engaged in conversations behind the wheel reacted to hazards almost one second slower and were 50 percent less likely to identify hazards than an undistracted driver.

Researchers now believe that conversations behind the wheel “may use more of the brain’s visual processing resources than previously understood”, causing drivers to miss hazards even when directly looking at them.

It is illegal to use a handheld mobile device while driving. Drivers caught using a handheld device behind the wheel receive a £100 fine and three points on their license.

David Robinson, a serious injury solicitor at Thompsons Solicitors, said: “These latest findings build on existing research that suggests drivers distracted by phone conversations are more likely to be involved in a road traffic collision, even when using hands-free devices, yet there is a common misconception that hands-free devices are safe to use behind the wheel.

“The government has a responsibility to properly educate the public on these risks and a review of current legislation surrounding in-car technology is much needed to reduce the number of serious injuries and deaths on our roads.”