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Texting while driving: the new drunk driving

Texting and driving – and gadgets like iPods and GPS devices – are a public safety epidemic.

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His officers are well aware of the impact of this behavior. In September, an 18-year-old died when she crashed her car into a tree seconds after receiving a text message.

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But Chief Massak says he has never issued a ticket for texting. In Massachusetts, he explains, there are no laws against cellphones in cars.

This may well change. Swayed in part by a number of highly publicized texting-while-driving deaths, 18 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws banning texting while driving; nine additional states prohibit teenagers from text-ing behind the wheel. This summer, Sen. Charles Schumer of New York introduced legislation that would withhold 25 percent of federal highway funding to states that don't institute some sort of texting ban. And last month, President Obama signed an executive order banning federal employees from sending texts in government cars.

Texting is a "perfect storm" of distraction, with cognitive, manual, and visual elements, says Strayer. "And it's primarily teenagers who are doing it. To become a proficient driver takes a few years, so it's the worst combination – a novice driver multitasking in a way [that takes] their eyes off the road."

To those who don't text regularly, these dangers might seem obvious. But for many teens, and a growing number of adults, texting is a central way of communicating – a virtual conversation that doesn't stop in the car. Even with the growing restrictions, 73 percent of teens admit to texting while driving, according to a Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) study.

"Some of them say that they're good at typing without looking at the screen; others say they hold it up by their eyes as they text," says Stephen Wallace, national chairman and CEO of SADD.

Heather Barrett, a college student in Ohio, says she probably receives and sends more than 500 messages a day: "I prefer to text and drive rather than talk and drive. I can put the phone down in the middle of the text if something is going on."

She says that she has caught herself swerving while texting – "but only on backcountry lanes, and never in traffic."

JOSHUA WELLER, A SCIENTIST with Decision Research, has studied the perception of risk associated with distracted driving. His preliminary findings suggest a multilayered understanding of risk, similar to the way someone might internalize warnings against smoking. Those with a deeper appreciation of the risks of texting or talking on the phone – people who understand, for instance, that texting while driving 55 m.p.h. is similar to driving the length of a football field with one's eyes closed – are less likely to do it.

But establishing a widespread social understanding of risk is difficult. So is enforcement. It's hard to catch a texting driver, and it's too early to know the impact of texting laws.

Some safety advocates, then, are placing hope in technology to fight technology. Mr. Teater says there are systems in development that block incoming texts when a phone is in a car, responding with an automatic, "Sorry, I'm driving" message.

"We've got to rush technology to the market," he says. "There are a lot of people who will choose to not use phones while driving if there's a way not to do it but also stay in touch with people. We're going to have a nightmare on our hands if we don't get ahead of it."

Julie Masis, in Boston, contributed to this article.