A Tale of Death and Texting in Matt Richtel’s ‘A Deadly Wandering’

Lee Polevoi

 

A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Redemption in the Age of Attention

By Matt Richtel

William Morrow

416 pages

 

Matt Richtel, a New York Times technology reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for his series on distracted driving, offers some sobering statistics about texting and driving in his new book, A Deadly Wandering:

 

  • According to a National Occupant Protection Use Survey, at any given time, roughly 660,000 drivers use their cell phones or other electronic devices while they drive.

 

  • The National Safety Council estimates that more than a million-and-a-half accidents occur in the U.S. each year as a result of texting while driving.

 

  • And the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration contends that motorists engaging in this seemingly innocuous behavior are 23 times more likely to get into an accident.

 

A Deadly Wandering tells the story of Reggie Shaw, a Utah college student whose Chevy Tahoe veered into another lane one night in 2006 and clipped a car carrying two rocket scientists, which then collided head-on with a truck, killing the two men. Shaw was texting a friend at the time of the accident.

 

Richtel casts a wide net in the telling of this story, including a cast of characters that ranges from the scientists’ widows and children to lawmakers, prosecutors, neuroscientists and one tireless victim’s advocate. His objective is to offer a sweeping view of the repercussions of an accident that occurred because a driver was doing something he didn’t need to be doing at that precise, tragic moment.

 

Among the insights offered by researchers quoted in A Deadly Wandering is the limitations of human attention span, as illustrated by what Dr. Adam Gazzley calls the “Cocktail Party Effect”:

 

 

 “What he means is that people have a powerful, even extraordinary, ability to direct their attention to control it. At the same time, he says, the cocktail party effect shows the limitations of attention; after all, you can’t pay attention to two conversations at once. In fact, it’s so limited that if you’re really listening to the person in front of you, there are generally only two things you can pick up in a different conversation: the gender of the person speaking or, in some cases, the sound of your name.”

 

Oddly, the book itself seems to acknowledge the question of our ability to remain focused for very long. A Deadly Wandering consists of 51 chapters—some only two pages, most no longer than 12 pages—which necessitates a lot of flitting around between chapters with different headings, “Reggie,” “The Lawmakers,” “The Neuroscientists,” “The Hunt for Justice,” etc. It’s almost as if the author doesn’t trust the reader to stay with any one element of the story.

 

The result is an often fractured reading experience, coupled with the need to wade through a fair amount of extraneous information (background details on various secondary characters slow the narrative at points).

 

On the other hand, Richtel effectively portrays the horror and grief of the two scientists’ families as well as the emotional journey experienced by Reggie Shaw, the person at the heart of the story. Moving from a knee-jerk denial of responsibility to a final anguished mea culpa offered to everyone affected by his wrongdoing, Shaw emerges as a more sympathetic individual than one might initially expect to find.

 

Richtel also offers a thorough look at scientific studies on human attention conducted in recent decades. These studies provide what he calls “a pretty clear road map” on how people can break free of the tyranny of their electronic devices:

 

“Turn off the device for a sustained period—whether hours or days. And then, and here’s the really tough part, don’t fill the void left by the absence of stimulation with some other nonstop stimulation. That can be hard to do, the experts told me, when people are so accustomed to the constant stream of pings and external noises. A veritable panic can ensue—What do I do with this void?... When a person is clear-headed, the frontal lobe becomes freed of the humming and buzz of external pressure. That’s when you can decide what steps are best, what actions are wisest.”

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi is Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic.

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