Book Review: A Deadly Wandering
by Matt Richtel
William Morrow, 2014
Nineteen-year-old Reggie Shaw, the quiet, unassuming young Mormon main character in Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel’s new book, A Deadly Wandering, was driving along a highway in Utah in 2006 when he started texting. Since his concentration was almost entirely devoted to the typing he was doing, his car slowly veered over the yellow lane-divider into oncoming traffic. Shaw didn’t notice, and instant later his car side-swiped an oncoming vehicle from the oncoming traffic. That car, containing two men who worked as scientists at a Utah facility, swerved out of control and was crushed by a trailer-truck, killing both men. Shaw was dazed but unharmed. The police were called.
With a reporter’s eye for evocative detail and a storyteller’s fine ear for narrative, Richtel follows all the strands of the story that unfolds from that initial tragedy. The police eventually determine to a legal certainty that Shaw had been texting while driving, and the young man is sentenced to virtually no jail time and extended community service, mainly in the form of giving talks to young people about the evils of texting while driving (in the kind of egotistically baroque gesture that has identified incompetent bench-warmers throughout human history, the judge also ordered Shaw to read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables).
Richtel fills in his captivatingly readable book with ample and sympathetic background information on all of the people touched by the tragedy: the bereaved families of the two scientists, the hard-working police investigators, the valiant public safety advocates on all sides of the issue, and most of all Reggie Shaw himself and the vicissitudes – professional, romantic, and personal – of his life. Richtel is an unflaggingly energetic writer, so none of this material feels like filler. It’s immensely frustrating, but it’s gripping reading.
It’s frustrating because as a narrative approach it seems to share the same overriding impulse as so many of the participants in Richtel’s drama: to make Reggie Shaw feel better.
How many people are on the phone when they get into car accidents, Richtel asks: traffic deaths in the U.S. remain at catastrophically high levels despite the introduction of safety measures like seat belts, air bags, and antilock brakes – is the huge explosion on hand-held technology to blame? Our author interviews many neuroscientists who are dedicating research time to studying the question, and luckily for the reader, Richtel is every bit as skilled at laying out scientific material clearly as he is at dramatizing familial relations or bringing courtroom procedure to life.
At the heart of the problem, he writes, is the call of new technology to be always on. “One of the things public safety advocates fear in the distracted-driving conversation,” he tells us, “is the glorification of multitasking”:
It has an insidious, if not overt, quality of reinforcing the idea that it is uncool, foolish, not to be connected all the time. It’s a message that comes not just from the technology industry but from cafes, sports stadiums (log on during the event), and airlines (offering constant connectivity as the great in-flight perk). There’s a basic understanding in the culture and in our everyday language that it’s better to be connected all the time. That it’s cool. And that the reverse – being disconnected – is worse.
Although Shaw claimed that his own memories of what exactly he was doing at the time of the crash were fuzzy, there can be little doubt that like many young people, he’d fallen into that ‘insidious’ assumption, although on college campuses across the country he now preaches against it with the zeal of a wrongdoer snatched from the fires of perdition. Part of what he preaches is also echoed in the research Richtel relates: that the human brain in the modern era is caught between a bottomless biochemical hunger for stimulation and a hard-wired limit to how much stimulation it can process at any one time. A Deadly Wandering presents a long stream of experiments conducted on an issue so plank-to-the-face obvious only a trained scientist would think to study it: humans are not only incredibly distractible but also incredibly attracted to distraction. All primates are; in what Richtel refers to as “several classic studies,” baboons are shown that pushing a lever will sometimes deliver food from a dispenser:
“The baboon will press the lever at a very steady rate. ‘Is the food there yet, is the food there yet?’ Each press is like a question,” explains Dan Bernstein, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas …
It may not be a comfortable comparison for some. But the image of a baboon pulling a lever for food is not all that dissimilar from a person obsessively pecking at their phone waiting for the next email to appear.
Richtel’s book is full of such fascinating anecdotes, and although that’s a big part of what makes it such a rewarding reading experience, that also gets a bit frustrating in its implications for Reggie Shaw – mainly because there aren’t any implications for Reggie Shaw. Unlike even the smartest baboon on the planet, Reggie Shaw possesses vastly complex neural networks in his posterior cerebellum that exceed even the best computers at extrapolating possible futures from present activities. It’s a very large part of what the human brain evolved to do. Reggie Shaw wasn’t ignorant of what might happen if he decided to compose and type a letter while he was simultaneously driving a 4000-pound metal vehicle at 60 m.p.h. on a busy highway – and he wasn’t punished for what happened as a result. In its rush to put a human face on Shaw, Richtel’s book exonerates him of everything except bad judgement – and it implicitly praises him for all the consciousness-raising public service he’s done since his release from jail. The book doesn’t raise the question of whether a sentence of life in prison might have served as a better public service warning about the dangers of texting and driving.
It’s one of the many powerful and complex questions Richtel’s book raises, and no matter where his readers stand on those questions, they’ll be glad they read the book, which is certainly going to appear on half a dozen ‘best of’ lists at the end of the year.