Tale of highway-texting crash highlights digital dangers
ON September 22, 2006, 19year old Reggie Shaw obliviously crossed the centre line of a Utah highway and struck an oncoming car while texting. Although his SUV suffered only minor damage, the other car spun into the path of a huge pickup truck following behind Reggie, instantly killing two aerospace scientists in the car and injuring the truck driver. Legendary filmmaker Werner Herzog ( Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo) features Reggie prominently in his short film From One Second to the Next, an emotionally wrenching glimpse into the carnage caused by drivers texting behind the wheel. In the film’s final minutes we see Reggie at the side of the road, head in hands, sobbing. Wracked with guilt and sorrow, he makes his plea to viewers: don’t end up like me. Save a life. Turn the phone off. Reggie is also the central figure in Matt Richtel’s A Deadly Wandering, an intensely gripping, compelling and sobering retelling of the accident and its painful emotional and legal aftermath. Reggie emerges as a complex, sympathetic and tragic figure, one with whom almost any driver can, with no small unease, identify. A devout Mormon, Reggie was preparing for missionary work (in Winnipeg, as it turns out) when the accident occurred — at a point when there were no laws against texting and driving anywhere in the United States. His struggle between guilt and an inability to recall what happened form the emotional core of the book, and leads him to ultimately embrace a new lifelong mission: campaigning against distracted driving. As both a journalist and the author of several techno-thrillers, Matt Richtel has transformed Reggie’s journey into a masterpiece of narrative non-fiction that delves into the intimate inner lives not just of Reggie, but of all the figures connected to the case and its subsequent legal proceedings. Yet Richtel — who, along with his newspaper The New York Times earned a Pulitzer Prize in journalism in 2010 for his reportage on the issue of distracted driving — casts his eyes beyond this one terrible tragedy to construct an unsettling portrait of the limits of our cognitive abilities to adapt to the insatiable lure of digital technologies. In this regard, A Deadly Wandering joins an increasingly crowded field concerned with identifying and addressing the unanticipated mental, intellectual and social impacts of ubiquitous computing, including Michael Harris’s The End of Absence and Daniel Levitin’s The Organized Mind (reviewed in the Free Press Aug. 18 and 23, respectively).
Richtel’s narrative generates considerable tension as it shifts between Reggie and those involvedn in the search forf justice in the case, asa well as the work of neuroscientists seeking to understand the limits of our attention and functioning when surrounded by digital information. What we learn is appalling: not just in terms of the ghastly trail of ended and ruined lives caused by distracted driving — believed to be behind 1.6 million crashes annually in the U.S., with an estimated 11 teen fatalities per day — but in how so many of us have become literally addicted to the dopamine rush of mobile information. Studies are showing that texting while driving affects the skills of the driver to the same extent as being legally drunk, and that our compulsive need to scroll through Facebook has more in common with that of a slot machine addict than most of us would care to admit. No less addicted, argues Richtel, are the telecom and automobile industries, which lobbied against legislated bans on cellphone use in cars while at the same time incorporating ever-more extensive interactive gadgets and touchscreens into new vehicles. Despite its now well-known dangers, polls cited by Richtel show that few are willing to give up using hand-held cellphones while driving — a situation that lends passionate urgency to both Reggie’s mission and Richtel’s book. In putting the reader both behind the wheel and in front of a screen, A Deadly Wandering gives the potentially lethal risks of the digital age a very human face — one which we can, if we’re honest, readily see in the mirror. Michael Dudley is the indigenous and urban services librarian at the
University of Winnipeg.
A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention