As infrequently as possible, I used to take Route 128, the nasty ring road around Boston, during morning rush hour. This was 40 years ago, when I was young and manly – it's not something I would do today. One memorable morning, I looked at the car to my left, which was getting too close for comfort, too close even when everyone else was driving at a safe and sane, tailgating, 75 miles per hour. The gentleman behind the wheel was reading a newspaper, which was spread out on his steering wheel. One hand held the paper in place and did the steering, the other held a cup of coffee. Slurp. A glance at the road, a glance at the paper, a glance at the road. Slurp. I might have been young and manly, but this sight gave me the vapors. I looked for an exit. No exit, like the French philosopher said (another guy, by the way, whom I wouldn’t like to see behind the wheel).
Fast forward to September 22, 2006. Nineteen-year-old Reggie Shaw, recently denied his Mormon mission when his libido and guilt got the better of him, set out to work in a Chevy Tahoe. At the same time two men, James Furfaro and Keith O’Dell – family men, engineers – climbed into Furfaro’s Saturn for their commute. Shaw wasn’t a caveman, he didn’t have the Salt Lake Tribune draped on his steering wheel. He had a phone and he was texting. There was a truck in front of him and a rig behind, a farrier with a trailer full of horseshoes and anvils. The farrier noticed Shaw veering this way and that. He was concerned – the weather was wet, with flurries – but it wasn’t like he was driving on Route 128 during morning rush. He backed off a little.
Let’s make this quick. While texting – that is, while not paying attention to his driving – Shaw crossed the line, clipped Furfaro’s car, which went into a spin, and got T-boned by the farrier and his heavy load. Shaw, unharmed, tried to call 911, but the call didn’t go through. Darn phones. A state trooper was soon on the scene and witnessed “a collision so violent it popped out the passengers’ eyeballs.”
A Deadly Wandering, Matt Richtel’s keen and elegantly raw – like a tooth-crackingly crisp photograph that bleeds at the edges – story surrounding this disaster is not just a morality tale about texting and driving, but also a probe sent into the world of technology, examining the way it is outstripping our capability to keep up with it, and how we as a culture are feeding bullets into the techno-gun and playing with it. We suffer from this preoccupation/obsession/addiction, and sometimes people die. The verdict is usually negligent homicide.
There are 50 chapters in the book, and Richtel, a reporter for The New York Times, has distributed several strands of the story among them: Shaw, a victim’s advocate, police, courts, neuroscience’s investigation into attention, the aftermath. This makes for a prismatic telling, powerful episodes come and go, building operatically: Shaw had not come clean; his wagons have circled to protect him. But there are characters who won’t let this injustice go, and they pursue it like junkyard dogs – meaning, you wouldn’t want them on your tail. Richtel draws all the characters with a fine brush, a delicacy that treats misery both respectfully and front-on. There are moments, for instance, not many, when one sidles close to sympathy for Shaw.
Meanwhile, there are neuroscientists seeking to understand attention, and these scientists are beguiling though also commonsensical. Are the tools of our age (Moore’s law: “computing power doubles every eighteen months to two years”) overloading our mental grid? Is Metcalfe’s law (“defines the value of a telecommunications network ... as proportional to the square of the number of users”) amplifying the human social urge to be on top of things to the point where we are essentially addicted (whatever the word, “clearly there is an overtaking of rational, logical processing of information and judgment like we see with other drugs”) to our devices? Hear that ring, get a squirt of dopamine. The constant undercurrent of content undermines our attentiveness – no one multitasks, unless you are talking about patting your head while rubbing your tummy, and does a good job on each task – which is always anyways being nibbled at by our reptilian brain, constantly on the lookout for opportunities and threats. Attention is an art form.
It’s galling to learn that no state prohibited texting and driving until 2006, and that the legal system referred to the issue as “a mysterious bog.” That sounds like the cell-phone companies wanting you to rack up those minutes while bored behind the wheel. The judge in Shaw’s case made no bones about it: “To you, Mr. Shaw. What you did was a crime. It wasn’t a mistake. I keep hearing ‘mistake, mistake, mistake.’” Shaw got a few weeks in the big house and now speaks publicly about texting and driving, out of shame, sorrow, and the desire for redemption. Worthy, perhaps, but cold comfort to Mrs. Furfaro and O’Dell.