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REVIEW: A Deadly Wandering sheds light on why we text and drive knowing it kills

With 19-year old Reggie Shaw’s story as a hook, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel asks why we text and drive when we know it kills.

Matt Richtel's book, A Deadly Wandering, is part human tragedy, part fascinating neurological exploration.

Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel's A Deadly Wandering explores why we text and drive knowing it kills, using 19-year-old Reggie Shaw's story as a hook.

So you’re driving down a winding mountain road, and your phone buzzes. It’s your girlfriend, so you text back quickly with your right thumb, swerving slightly.

You immediately pull back into your lane and focus on the road — until your phone buzzes again. You glance down; your girlfriend again. You start typing, and cross into the oncoming lane.  You hit send.  You hit an oncoming car.

Two rocket scientists in that car are killed instantly.

After the crash, you’re sitting with the state trooper and your phone buzzes. Do you slide it out of your pocket and send a few quick texts while the officer is talking to you?

Nineteen-year-old Reggie Shaw did.

That moment in Utah in 2006 was one where the officer with Shaw realized texting was more dangerous — and more addictive — than drivers were willing to admit.

His investigation and Shaw’s need for redemption forced lawmakers to make changes.

With Shaw’s story as a hook, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel asks why we text and drive when we know it kills.

Richtel's book, A Deadly Wandering, is part human tragedy, part fascinating neurological exploration. 

Richtel’s intensely intimate writing is also conversational. He digs deep into the personal motivation of everyone involved in Shaw’s case — his family, the police, the widows of those two rocket scientists, the lawyers and an incredibly dedicated victim’s advocate.

Through this, Richtel weaves the most up-to-date research on how our brains operate when we text. 

I asked the question about whether you’d text right after the deadly crash, in front of the state trooper. While I assume most people would answer “of course I wouldn’t,” research says yes you would. You can’t help yourself. 

The scientists in Richtel’s book are proving our brains are hardwired from caveman days to respond to that beep.

Shaw’s powerful story spans between when he first denies he was texting to the moment he accepts full responsibility and makes it his mission to save lives.

But his story alone is not enough to convince everyone.

Too many people say “yeah, but it’s just a quick call,” or “I am a really good driver,” or “I know I could kill someone, but I just can’t help it.”

And that is where this book really grips you.  

Richtel walks us through experiment after experiment, showing our brains simply can not multitask. Period.

When faced with deciding what our brains will pay attention to — critical information, such as a red light, or finding out who is at the party you’re driving to — the party wins hands down.

A Deadly Wandering shows us why.

What we do with that as drivers is, of course, up to us.  But I bet this book will have a few people shoving their phones into the glove compartment.

Another new book looks at how the internet is affecting the generation just slightly older than Reggie Shaw.

People born before 1985 are the last to remember the world before we went online.  According to Canadian journalist Michael Harris, that’s a huge loss.

His book, The End of Absence, will have readers of a certain age (me included) nodding along, saying “yes — that is so true.”

His book reads like the kind of conversation you’d have at a cocktail party (a super intelligent and interesting cocktail party) as you bemoan “kids these days.” 

Harris laments the loss of down time; the time we used to spend staring off into space.

The book leads to a good question: How much innovation is lost when we don’t daydream anymore?

What happens when Google directs us to exactly what we think we are looking for, and we no longer get lost down the rabbit hole of libraries and encyclopedias?

Harris shows us how every step forward in history — the move from oral to written, the invention of the printing press, the invention of the radio — resulted in the exact same “sky is falling” mentality. 

His book is chatty, knowledgeable and well-researched.  It is a clever take on how many of our generation feel about social media, with some solid and interesting insights.

Joanne Kelly is a journalism instructor at Red River College.  She hosts an open book club at McNally Robinson and talks books with Terry MacLeod every second Sunday on The Weekend Morning Show.

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