Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Scary Book

Just finished reading A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel. It is the story of the dangers of texting, cell phone use, and driving. It is told around the death of two rocket scientists in Utah as another driver was texting and forced their car into the fatal accident.

Back when I first got my driver's license in the mid to late 60s, my aunt was adamant about not having a radio in the car. She felt that having a radio in the car was inviting disaster. This was in the days before FM radio was popular so the radio she was talking about was the old AM type. I prevailed. Now, 50 years later, to have a only a radio in the car would be silly- and maybe not even possible.

But I am afraid my aunt was on the right track. Matt Richtel's well-researched and -written book presents the incredible dangers our modern technology has added to what, in reality has always been a very dangerous activity- driving a car. In separate sets of chapters Richtel tells the story of Reggie Shaw, the driver whose inattention caused the action; the neuroscientists who are studying the ways the brain has been overwhelmed by the increasing information flood; the prosecutors search for justice; Terryl, a victim's advocate who takes hold of the case and won't let go; and families and lawmakers.

Reggie, an everyday kind of kid is 19 when the accident happens, becomes an "everyman" for all of us. His story could at any moment become our story as we wrestle with the distraction of cell phones and texting. The scientists and their families could also become any one of us, victims of someone else's distraction. It is not as far-fetched as many of us might think. One statistic that sent shivers up my spine was that just talking on a cell-phone while driving makes us 4 times as likely to be in an accident and texting makes us 6 times as likely. That is equal to- and worse than- drunk driving, the ultimate no-no. These are not numbers pulled out of a hat. These come from years of research on the brain's ability to think when distracted.

In spite what many of us think we cannot multi-task! We just cannot! What we call multi-tasking is just the brain switching between one activity or another. We cannot pay attention to two things at the same time. One will suffer. In that inability is the great danger of texting and driving. The research is very clear. It is amazingly dangerous. And people do a variation on it all the time. Sometimes it is just changing the dial on the radio. I had a friend who lost his wife and daughter in that kind of distracted accident. Sometimes it is looking at the GPS or trying to program the GPS while driving. It might be wondering what the weather is up ahead there where the darker clouds are so the availability of the local radar on the smartphone comes into play.

The problem lies in the fact that we have a brain that evolved for a different type of lifestyle.We also have a brain that wants to respond to certain stimuli- such as the vibration or beep of a text arriving on our phone. We have to answer it; we have to always on the ready for the important information. It actually sets our dopamine system into action- which only reinforces the need to answer the text the next time.

These are oversimplifications of the science, but it is good science. Our ability to evolve into a way of better handling this flood of information is much too slow. Just because we are more comfortable with it does not mean that our brains have changed enough in just a very, very few years to cope.

Reggie spent a couple years after the accident not believing he was texting at the time or that he was even being inattentive. It was only when he heard the science that his several years of worry, wondering, fear and guilt came crashing in. Richtel does what any good Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist would do- he builds the story so we can feel what is happening. He demonizes no one. He gives the hint in the book's sub-title and Prologue that this is going to turn  out in a hopeful way. Redemption is at the heart of the story.

I am not sure Reggie is just an everyday guy. I hope he is representative of more of us than not. I hope I could have the courage in the end to do the right thing. His open and fearless testimony led the Utah legislature to pass an anti-texting law just when it was about to die in committee.

The book has scared me- about my own behavior in the car. I do not text, but the phone can have me tied to its buzz or beep. Even with a Bluetooth connection for phone calls, I am not sure I should be doing much of that. The ease at which something happens, the speed- in brain-time as well as clock-time- at which accidents can happen is chilling.

May we all pay attention!


At first the phone companies were fighting the changes in the law that make  texting and driving illegal. They got on board knowing that it was good business not to have your customers dying or being killed. But they also were willing to put their money behind it. AT&T had it's "It Can Wait" campaign. Reggie has been an important part of that.

Here, as part of AT&T's campaign, is Reggie telling his story.

Werner Herzog produced documentary on texting and driving. Reggie's story is the final part of the movie.

Reggie Shaw's Web page

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