FRIDAY, March 15, 2013 (HealthDay News) -- Hands-free phone conversations or texting while driving are as dangerous as getting behind the wheel after having too much to drink, a small new study finds.
The study included 12 university students who took two driving-simulation tests -- once after consuming alcohol and once while using headphones and a microphone to simulate a hands-free system. People who were habitual drinkers or had never consumed alcohol were not included in the study.
The participants, who had driving licenses, had to maintain their vehicle's position in the center of the left lane at a speed of between 40 and 50 miles per hour, and brake every time a truck appeared.
Researchers from Australia and Spain found that when having a phone conversation that required a lot of attention or when answering a text message, the participants' levels of distraction were equal to the effects of having a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that was above the legal level in both countries (0.5 grams per liter).
"When the conversation using the hands-free was simple, the effects were comparable to a BAC level of 0.04 grams per liter," study co-author Sumie Leung Shuk Man, a researcher at the University of Barcelona, said in a news release from the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology.
"However, when more attention was required, their alcohol-level analogue shot up to 0.7 grams per liter, which is above the legal limit in both countries yet below in other countries, like the United States or United Kingdom, where up to 0.8 grams per liter is allowed. When answering text messages, the rate stood at 1 gram per liter, which is illegal in all of these countries," Leung Shuk Man said.
"Our results suggest that the use of hands-free devices could also put drivers at risk," Leung Shuk Man said. "Although they should be allowed, they require more research to determine how they should be regulated and, of course, the thorough knowledge that national authorities should have regarding their pros and cons."
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has more about distracted driving.