R Teens Txt Msg Addicts?

At about 10:05 p.m., a text message was sent from Bailey Goodman's cell phone, according to Sheriff Philip C. Povero of Ontario County, N.Y. Thirty-seven seconds later, the phone received a text reply, asking: What R U doing?

Goodman had been driving four of her friends to her family's vacation home to celebrate their high school graduation five days earlier. Thirty-eight seconds after her phone received that message, another phone rang -- this one at a police station -- with an eyewitness's report that Goodman's car had just collided into a tractor-trailer in western New York.

Was Goodman, an inexperienced 17-year-old driver typing into her phone's keypad, one hand off the wheel and eyes averted from the road? Is this why she didn't see the truck and couldn't avoid the collision that took her life and those of her four teenage passengers?

"Cell phone records indicate the phone was in use," Povero told ABC News. "The text messaging may have been a contributing factor, but we do not know or will we ever be able to determine who was text messaging in the automobile."

The addictiveness of cell phones, and the dangers of calling while driving, has become a high-profile issue over the past several years. But the effects of text messaging -- which is likely even more dangerous because drivers must avert their eyes from the road for longer periods -- have been mostly ignored.

Is addiction to text messaging interfering with the lives of teens and endangering their safety? The evidence is mounting: Twenty-eight percent of teens admit to sending text messages while driving, according to a study just released by the American Automobile Association and Seventeen magazine.

Signs of a youth population increasingly hooked on text messaging abound. Sixty-five percent of people between the ages of 18 and 28 send text messages, nearly double the population average of 35 percent, according to the Pew Internet and American Life Project. In total, a whopping 93.8 billion text messages were sent in the United States during the last six months of 2006, nearly double the 48.6 billion sent in the same period in 2005, according to CTIA, an industry trade group for wireless communications.

OMG, I'm a Texting Addict

Eli Tirosh says she sends about 50 texts each day and a total of 2,000 every month. She describes her tally as "not super high," a sign of just how widespread serial texting is today.

"I'm definitely addicted to communication with other people, not just text messaging," Tirosh, 21, says, saying she's added instant messaging, e-mail and phone conversations to her list of vices.

Tirosh recently made her addiction pay, winning $10,000 at the inaugural LG West Coast Texting Championship last March, though she lost the national title to a 13-year-old girl who claims to send more than 4,000 text messages each month.

For most texting addicts, though, the hook comes with a cost, and not just on their phone bill. Because they are still in the developmental stage, teenagers and young adults are particularly prone to having their life obstructed or even endangered, says Phil Scherer, clinical coordinator for the Illinois Institute for Addiction Recovery.

Indeed, 31 percent of 18- to 28-year olds -- more than any other age group -- feel the need to answer their phone, even when it interrupts what they are doing, according to the Pew report.

If they get a text message while driving, teens are faced with what is often a no-brainer, according to Bryant Paul, a telecommunications professor at Indiana University-Bloomington: "Think about it: You might get a ticket versus not being a part of your social group, which is what defines you as a human being."

Young people are more likely to risk the ticket -- or an accident, adds Scherer. "Part of the problem with adolescents and addiction is that their minds and brains are still developing. They haven't fully developed that area of the brain that processes consequences and regulates impulses."

Tirosh admits that she often unconsciously picks up her phone while driving and texts her friends.

"It's probably really bad because I'm from Los Angeles, and am always in traffic," said Tirosh, who added that after some close calls on the road she has tried to cut down on mobile messaging. "Right away if I do it, I'll just be like, 'Woah what am I doing?' "

Has she ever almost had an accident because she was looking at her phone, not the road? "Don't tell my dad, but probably!" she said.

R U Listening?

Text message addiction is slowly showing up on the radar of mental health professionals, who have for some years now been dealing with other permutations of electronics addiction, including video games, Internet and cybersex. The Priory Group, a top mental health provider in Britain, announced in 2003 that they had begun treating patients for phone-texting addiction.

Parker said that he and most other addiction clinicians in the United States have yet to treat anyone solely for text-message addiction because those potential patients are usually also hooked on other electronic devices like instant messaging, video games, or cyber sex that may cause more visible harm.

But if incidents directly linked to texting, including possibly the Bailey Goodman crash, become more common, this may change.

"I wouldn't be surprised if it's something that [mental health professionals] begin to see on the horizon. It's a phenomenon that seems to be gaining some notoriety in its misuse and the subsequent consequences," Scherer said.

Lawmakers, too, are beginning to take notice, and are looking for ways to deter young people from texting behind the wheel. This year, Washington state passed the first law specifically banning text messaging while driving; in New Jersey, a text message ban passed the legislature, and Gov. John Corzine has said he will sign the bill.