Tragic dis­trac­tion

Tale of high­way-tex­ting crash high­lights dig­i­tal dan­gers

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS -

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

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