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Using a smartwatch behind the wheel is more dangerous than talking illegally on a mobile phone (Reuters)

Drivers using smartwatches take 36% longer to react to emergencies than those using a mobile phone without a handsfree kit. Research carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory in Wokingham found a driver reading a message on a smartwatch takes 2.52 seconds to react to an emergency manoeuvre, such as a pedestrian walking out in front of them. A driver talking to their passenger took just 0.9 seconds, while a driving using a handheld phone took 1.85 seconds.

Smartwatches are the hottest topic in consumer technology, with Apple set to launch its Watch in April 2015 and a range of Google-powered alternatives already on the market. But driving organisations have voiced concern, saying using the Apple Watch behind the wheel will carry the same penalty as using a handheld phone - that means three penalty points and a £100 fine.

Smartwatches can be used to read texts and emails sent to the owner's Bluetooth-connected smartphone. They can also make and receive calls, make Google searches, show maps and directions, and alert you to the same range of notifications as your smartphone.

Paul Singh, CEO of SmartWitness, a company selling vehicle journey recorders, said in a Huffington Post blog: "We need to have a Driver Mode added to the smartwatches and smartphones, much in the same way there's an Airplane Mode button which switches off messages and calls during flights - and we need legislation to enforce it otherwise there could be a significant increase in serious road accidents and even fatalities caused by smartwatches."

Government has serious catching up to do

Ed Morrow, campaigns officer for Brake, the road safety charity, told IBTimes UK: "Attempting any type of multitasking at the wheel increases your chances of causing a crash and killing and seriously injuring yourself or somebody else. We urge anyone with a smartwatch not to use them while driving, just as we would urge them not to use a smartphone – it's simply not worth the risk.

"It is clear that the government has some serious catching up to do to make sure legislation keeps pace with technological change and regulates the use of any technology that is not an aid to driving and poses a distraction risk."

Using a mobile phone while driving has been illegal since 2003, unless used handsfree, and the DfT says the Apple Watch can pose an equal risk to road safety.

Neil Greig, director of policy and research at the Institute of Advanced Motorists, said after the Watch was announced: "An Apple Watch has the potential to be just as distracting behind the wheel as any other smartphone device. Indeed more so if you have to take your hand off the wheel and your eyes off the road to interact with it. Enforcement will be difficult for the police, but powers exist to seize and interrogate devices in the event of a serious crash. The very device that distracted you also has the power to convict you."