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28 September 2016

'A Deadly Wandering' by Matt Richtel: Book Review

A driver can remain distracted for up
to 15 seconds after sending a text.
Credit: Mike Blake/ Reuters
In 2014 in the United States, 3,179 people were killed, and 431,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. At any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, a number that has held steady since 2010. (Ref: distraction.gvt)

Attention Must Be Paid
'A Deadly Wandering,' by Matt Richtel

by Robert Kolkersept, The New York Times, 25 September 2014

Reggie Shaw is the man responsible for the most moving portion of “From One Second to the Next,” the director Werner Herzog’s excruciating (even by Werner Herzog standards) 35-minute public service announcement, released last year as part of AT&T’s “It Can Wait” campaign against texting and driving. In the film, Shaw, now in his 20s, recounts the rainy morning in September 2006 that he crossed the line of a Utah highway, knocking into a car containing two scientists, James Furfaro and Keith O’Dell, who were heading to work nearby. Both men were killed. Shaw says he was ­texting a girlfriend at the time, adding in unmistakable anguish that he can’t even ­remember what he was texting about. He is next seen taking part in something almost inconceivable: He enters the scene where one of the dead men’s daughters is being interviewed, and receives from that woman a warm, earnest, tearful, cathartic hug.

Reggie Shaw’s redemptive journey — from thoughtless, inadvertent killer to denier of his own culpability to one of the nation’s most powerful spokesmen on the dangers of texting while behind the wheel — was first brought to national attention by Matt Richtel, a reporter for The New York Times, whose series of articles about distracted driving won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Now, five years later, in “A Deadly Wandering,” Richtel gives Shaw’s story the thorough, emotional treatment it is due, interweaving a detailed chronicle of the science behind distracted driving. As an instructive social parable, Richtel’s densely reported, at times forced yet compassionate and persuasive book deserves a spot next to “Fast Food Nation” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” in America’s high school curriculums. To say it may save lives is self-evident.

What makes the deaths in this book so affecting is how ordinary they are. Two men get up in the morning. They get behind the wheel. A stranger loses track of his car. They crash. The two men die. The temptation is to make the tragedy bigger than it is, to invest it with meaning. Which may explain why Richtel wonders early on if Reggie Shaw lied about texting and driving at first because he was in denial, or because technology “can hijack the brain,” polluting his memory. In short chapters that break up the story of the crash, Richtel delivers the history of cognitive neuroscience, from its origins in World War II, helping pilots and radar operators save lives by not being overwhelmed by the technology in front of them, to later M.R.I. brain studies of multitasking and what came to be called attention science. Richtel presents each scholar, researcher, study and theory largely without judgment, but the even-handedness has a leveling effect that makes it hard to know what the author feels is most important. The larger potential problem here, perhaps, is that generally speaking, the big takeaway of the texting-and-driving question just isn’t that complicated: Put down the frickin’ phone.

Still, there are rewards. Richtel explains how researchers have found that distraction is the antagonist of attention, not its opposite. It’s an interesting distinction. Distraction is the devil in your ear — not always the result of an attention deficit, but borne of our own desires. We are distracted because we want to be. Why else would they sell so many smartphones? As Richtel explains, a good gadget is essentially magical, commandeering our focus with delight and surprise and ease (Steve Jobs used the word “magical” about the iPhone when it debuted). The smartphone brilliantly exploits both types of attention, “top down” (what we want to focus on) and “bottom up” (what takes us by surprise). The intimacy of smartphones is, if not addictive, then certainly seductive. Not all distractions are created equal: The impairment of drunken driving, for instance, is consistently huge, while the impairment of texting is ­arguably more intense but shorter in duration. The researchers Richtel quotes have found that drivers are impaired for up to 15 seconds after they text — far longer than most drivers would ever think. The stronger a phone’s hold has on us, the more money the phone companies can make. Richtel’s account of ways the telecommunications industry originally ­suppressed safety concerns over cellphone use while driving is blood-boiling.

Reggie Shaw, meanwhile, is meant to perform as a proxy for a generation that grew up on Nintendo and personal computers — “the all-American boy” who ­“always made the right choices,” yet whose digital life encroached on his real one. Shaw grows more interesting when his quirks shine through. A fundamentally decent teenager, Shaw nevertheless had things he was ashamed of and family expectations to live up to. His pattern, even before the crash, was to dissemble in order not to make trouble for those around him. Once the tragedy happened, Richtel writes, “the intensity with which the ­family undertook the defense had a self-perpetuating and escalating force: Reggie denied texting, the family backed him up and Reggie, never someone to let others down, dug deeper.”

Richtel locates not one but two Inspector Javert types: the state trooper who responded to the crash and almost immediately decided Shaw was lying about not texting (“He kind of goes after people,” an attorney says about him), and a victims advocate named Terryl Warner, whose own story is every bit as fascinating and redemptive as Shaw’s. The prelude to the trial is fascinating: Should Reggie be charged with negligence or manslaughter, or nothing at all? Even if texting and driving is wrong, should he have known that? In Richtel’s sensitive account, we come face to face with the horrible Catch-22 of accident litigation that discourages one party from apologizing to another, for fear of admitting liability. This apparent standoffishness helped persuade the ­prosecutor to make Shaw a test case for texting and driving. Which in turn caused Shaw’s family to accuse the prosecutor of waging a witch hunt. Which only appalled the victims’ widows and families and advocates even more.

Richtel displays admirable empathy for everyone involved but reserves a special place in his heart for Reggie — impassive and forlorn, monosyllabic but tortured, evasive yet sincere. Shaw’s conversion is depicted with revelatory precision, his epiphany realistically subdued and painstakingly gradual. “The fight seemed to be going out of him bit by bit,” Richtel writes, before the floodgates opened, “his private and public selves beginning to reconcile.” By the book’s end, Shaw is a raw nerve, unable to stop confessing in speeches around the country. Even the relatives of those he killed worry he’ll never be able to close the floodgates again.

The most powerful question raised by “A Deadly Wandering” is a simple one: If we know texting and driving is so bad for us, why do we still do it? Richtel tries out several analogies to describe the rush we get from a phone: alcohol, drugs, television, video games, junk food, the ­fight-or-flight response to a tap on a shoulder. (The television comparison is weakest, perhaps because so few of the people in the book agree with it.) My favorite analogy of Richtel’s is the slot machine. Our bodies love the little hit of dopamine we get each time we check our phones for something, anything. And just like a one-armed bandit, more often than not, our phones rarely offer terribly exciting results when we check them. Even so, that doesn’t stop us from coming back for more dozens of times a day — during movies, out at dinner, on our way to wherever we’re going, unsafe at any speed.

A DEADLY WANDERING

A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention
By Matt Richtel
403 pp. William Morrow/HarperCollins ­Publishers. $28.99.

Robert Kolker is a writer for New York magazine and the author of “Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/28/books/review/a-deadly-wandering-by-matt-richtel.html

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