A Deadly Wandering is an investigative journalism piece by Pulistzer Prize Winner Matt Richtel about the death of two rocket scientists in a car crash caused by a young man named Reggie Shaw’s texting and driving–and the dialogue that it helped open up in America.
I have to preface this by saying that even as I sat reading, I started to realize how eery it was for my phone to continue buzzing and beeping periodically a foot away from me. All while reading about scientists who study the temptation of checking your phone constantly, and how it satisfies an unhealthy habit of temporary endorphin stimulus in my brain.
The book tells multiple stories side by side, the two main stories being Reggie’s mistake, his trial, and his reckoning, but also the story of the “attention scientists” who have been researching for more than half a century. The story of Reggie Shaw is a vehicle to dive into how the human brain works in terms of distraction and attention, but the science behind it is equally important.
Unfortunately, science is where you lose a significant amount of people in your writing sometimes. What works in A Deadly Wandering is that Richtel tells the stories of the actual scientists behind the research to bring us deeper into what their work means. But not only that, he explores the lives of almost every “character” we encounter throughout the book. I have to admit that at first I felt like it was a distraction in itself.
How exactly is this relevant? I thought. But reading only a little further, I understood.
- When Richtel talks about Scientist David Greenfield starting on page 192, he explains that he “spent time himself in rehab.” This validates Greenfield’s research comparing technology addiction to regular addiction, because he himself knows what both feel like.
- We find out about the prosecuting lawyer, Don Linton’s, childhood, and how he was abused by a priest at a young age. This brings so much more weight to his statement (page 316) to Reggie in the hallway at the end of the trial: “Instead of trying to convert people, your mission is saving lives.” You feel the anger towards the church in his words, and it hits home that much harder.
Little details about these people provide incite into their motivations and perspectives. It makes everyone more human, and makes us relate and empathize with every character on either side of the trial even more.
- On page 49, a seemingly inconsequential character named Terryl is introduced and we learn about her horrible home life growing up with her later revealed step father. “Get in here!” he yells at the young girl, “I’m going to blow your mother’s fucking head off.”
She’s an integral part of the story, as we find out later in the book, and the background of her painful childhood helps show us why she is so adamantly committed to making Reggie pay for causing the death of her friend’s husband. As a victim herself, we understand her crusade to advocate for other victims. That’s why it’s so much more meaningful when Reggie speaks at the government chamber meeting, advocating for a texting and driving ban, and Terryl says, “I completely turned, in a moment,” and has a complete change of heart. Reggie is acknowledging and taking responsibility for his actions, something her abusive step-father never did.
Obviously, all these intimate details about people in the book highlight the importance of detailed interviews and rigorous reporting, but also spending a lot of time with your subjects. Richtel says in the “Author’s Note” (Page 386) that there is “no substitute for getting to know people over time,” recounting that he had up to 5 years of contact with some of the people in the book.
“Memories can be unreliable, and accounts biased,” he says on page 385, before detailing the enormous lengths he went to to maintain accuracy: matching different individuals’ accounts of the same events, referencing diaries and journal entries, playing back court videos, and re-reading documentation of legal proceedings.
Often we get to hear both sides of important moments in the story, and especially the trial. According to the recorded video, and the accounts of Leila and Jackie in the gallery, Reggie seemed often blank and unmoved, specifically by the testimony of Dr. Strayer about distracted driving. But according to what Reggie says, the floodgates had opened in his mind and at that moment he was realizing that he must have been texting at the time of the crash, and that he alone was at fault.
It all speaks to a commendable level of objectivity on the part of Richtel. He also waits until more than three quarters of the way through the book before being inserting his first person perspective into the story. He even mentions a New York Times article earlier in the book that he himself wrote, but refrains from mentioning that he wrote it until the Author’s Note (Page 385) because he “did not wish to interrupt the flow of the story.”
I think one thing that his writing has clearly shown is the power of details. You should never underestimate the relevance of a particular anecdote in the grand scheme of a story. I completely understand why this book is so critically claimed. Not only because of how thorough it was, but because of the power this detailed story has to change the reader’s perspective on technology and attention.
As Richtel talks about comparing internet usage to pulling slots and winning nothing, he says the internet will often “deliver us worthless information,” (Page 198). But we keep checking in with the hope of getting that endorphin release from developing another “plot point” in our lives. Richtel still manages to stay objective, maintaining that technology has it’s place in our lives, and we just need balance.
And through referencing countless studies and testimonies from neuroscientists he clearly shows how much attention is taken away from the road by your phone. Near the end of the book, Richtel seeks to find out how close Reggie is to being like “any other person” in terms of his ability to stay attentive. After scanning Reggie’s brain Dr. Jason Watson says that he’d “classify Reggie as high in terms of attention,” further proving how a crash like that could really have happened to anyone.
But not only that, just the shear guilt and shame that Reggie experiences throughout the book, and the pain and grief of the two widows and their family should be enough for you to never want to take out your phone on the road again.
As Barbara Harsha (a longtime travel safety advocate) says on page 376, “The culture is: ‘It’s not me, it’s you. I’m the good driver.” That’s the reason why a tragic story told in passing still might not convince people not to text and drive. But Reggie’s story does. As he reinforces throughout many of his speeches, he never wants anyone else to end up like him and cause someone else’s death–or his or her own death. He doesn’t want anyone else to have to be a slave to guilt and regret.
That’s why I find the author’s direct address to Reggie, at the end of the book on page 387, to be particularly touching:
“Reggie, I hope that in some small way, the contribution you have made to this account adds sufficiently to the portfolio of your testimony so that you can forgive yourself.”