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A Deadly Wandering: A Mystery, a Landmark Investigation, and the Astonishing Science of Attention in the Digital Age


A Deadly Wandering: A Mystery, a Landmark Investigation, and the Astonishing Science of Attention in the Digital Age

Answer me this question: When on a trip to the grocery store, on your way home from work, or to meet a friend for dinner, how often are you simply driving the car? Not eating a donut or sipping a coffee. Not chatting on the phone --- either with the device in your hand or using a hands-free attachment. Not texting or fiddling with the GPS. Just driving. My guess is not very often. If you’re anything like the majority of drivers these days, multi-tasking while operating a vehicle is an effective and, some would argue, necessary way of getting through the day efficiently. That may be true. But is it safe? Quite the opposite, journalist Matt Richtel argues in his new book, A DEADLY WANDERING: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention.

Over the years, Richtel has become an expert on the subject of distracted driving and the detrimental effects of multi-tasking on the brain. While working on a series of articles on the issue for the New York Times, Richtel won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010. His findings broke ground partly because they were contrary to the popular belief that texting while driving wasn’t harmful, but more a way of conveniently accomplishing two tasks simultaneously. In this age of near-constant communication and hyper-awareness, it’s hard to believe how attitudes --- and policy --- have changed in just a few short years.

Though A DEADLY WANDERING explores many different aspects of the impact technology has on society, Richtel centers the book on the tragic story of Reggie Shaw. On a cold, rainy morning in Utah on September 22, 2006, the then-19-year-old was headed over a mountain pass near Salt Lake City on his way to work in Logan. In front of him was a semi. Behind him was a tractor-toting Ford F-250 weighing nearly five tons. A small Saturn Sedan carrying two rocket scientists from the ATK Systems laboratory nearby was heading toward the trucks from the opposite direction.

According to the Ford’s driver, Shaw was driving fairly close to the semi in front of him. His Chevy Tahoe appeared to be lurching erratically, as though Shaw intended to pass the large truck. Then, suddenly, Shaw’s SUV swerved over the center yellow line, clipping the Saturn’s side and sending it spinning into the Ford. The subsequent collision occurred with such brute force that the impact caused the eyes of the scientist in the passenger seat to pop out of his head. Both he and the car’s driver were killed instantly. Was Shaw to blame for the crash? What caused him to swerve so suddenly into oncoming traffic? Was it a case of hydroplaning tires, as Shaw insisted after the accident? Or was it something more preventable --- like the fact that he was distracted and lost control of his vehicle?

"Matt Richtel doesn’t preach, and A DEADLY WANDERING doesn’t pretend to give us all the answers. But it does give us pause for thought. Next time, maybe think twice about picking up the phone while behind the wheel."

In the ensuing months, a thorough investigation was launched, and, as months turned into years, the details of that fateful morning slowly came to light --- Shaw had been texting while driving. What began as a local incident affecting a few families grew into a court case with far-reaching and long-lasting legal implications impacting millions of people across the country. Shaw’s actions and the fact that he had lied about what he was doing at the precise time of the accident meant that he could --- and would --- be held responsible for the lives of the two men. There’s no doubt the crash could have been prevented. But should Shaw be held solely accountable given that it wasn’t against the law at the time to text while sitting in the driver’s seat? What if Shaw didn’t realize he was doing anything wrong? Despite the loss of two lives, how severe could a punishment possibly be if a prior legal precedent hadn’t been set?

It is this ambiguity that makes A DEADLY WANDERING so fascinating --- and such a thought-provoking examination of technology’s impact on human behavior. Aside from objectively laying out the circumstances surrounding Shaw’s case and tracing his gradual transformation from cocky, preoccupied adolescent to a man hounded by guilt and remorse, Richtel also delves into the accident’s bearing on the small, heavily Mormon Utah community and the lives of those both directly and indirectly involved: Shaw's parents, who did everything they could to protect their boy from prosecution, despite (inadvertently or advertently) hindering the investigation; the Furfaros and the O’Dells, the families of the deceased who approached their grief and mourning periods differently and with varying degrees of success; Utah State Trooper Bart Rindlisbacher, the first at the crime scene a week after coming home from a tour in Iraq, and an aggressive proponent for criminal charges against Shaw; and Terryl Warner, an ardent legal advocate for victims in Cache County, who brought her own baggage to Shaw’s case after a childhood spent in an abusive home.

Though not always fully relevant to the Shaw case’s outcome, Richtel’s decision to delve into Rindlisbacher’s, Warner’s, the Furfaros’ and the O’Dells’ backstories lends a human element to A DEADLY WANDERING. This is a book about real people whose lives were irrevocably changed in an instant because of a cell phone. But it’s also a book stocked with plenty of scientific evidence. Over the course of his research, Richtel interviewed countless neuroscientists to get their expert opinion on technology’s pervasive influence over our minds and actions. Their positions on the matter are clear. Is texting while driving harmful? (Yes.) Can our brains effectively process the rapid-fire, high volume of information being thrown at them on a daily basis? (No.) Is our constant obsession with connecting with others via popular social media sites rather than face-to-face healthy? (For the most part, no.) Are there benefits to multi-tasking and using technology? (Of course.) Will the attention spans and emotional development of young people who have grown accustomed to using technology at an early age be altered in the long run? (Yes. It already has.)

In 2009, after three long years that exacted a heavy toll on everyone involved, a decision was finally reached in Reggie Shaw’s case. Shaw accepted a plea in abeyance. He would serve some jail time, no more than three months. And he would have to take part in some form of community service. Despite such a lenient sentence, Shaw would go on to speak to students and community organizations nationwide about the dangers of distracted driving. Over the course of doing so, he would slowly chip away at his guilt for what he came to see as the crime he committed.

More importantly, the case served as a long-needed legal precedent for future cases. On March 12, 2009, the Utah State Senate passed legislation banning texting while driving --- whether sending an email, responding to a text, or looking up directions. It remains the toughest ban in the country.

There’s no debate. Texting while driving is dangerous. Yet we do it. Talking on the phone while driving is dangerous. Yet we do it. Exposing ourselves to the insistent, unceasing flow of information at all times (even while on vacation) is detrimental to our well-being. Yet we do it. Are we the arbiters of our intellectual evolution or the harbingers of our psychological demise? Perhaps a little of both. Matt Richtel doesn’t preach, and A DEADLY WANDERING doesn’t pretend to give us all the answers. But it does give us pause for thought. Next time, maybe think twice about picking up the phone while behind the wheel.

Reviewed by Alexis Burling on September 26, 2014

A Deadly Wandering: A Mystery, a Landmark Investigation, and the Astonishing Science of Attention in the Digital Age
by Matt Richtel

  • Publication Date: June 2, 2015
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Social Sciences, Technology
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow Paperbacks
  • ISBN-10: 006228407X
  • ISBN-13: 9780062284075