Tragedy in the age of inattention

The story of an avoidable accident sheds light on the dangers of multitasking


Matt Richtel

A Deadly Wandering opens with a heartbreaking and utterly avoidable crash. On a rainy September day in 2006, 19-year-old Reggie Shaw drifted into oncoming traffic on his way to work as a housepainter. In crossing the yellow line, Shaw’s Chevy Tahoe clipped a violet Saturn carrying two rocket scientists. The pair was killed instantly in the pre-dawn crash. Shaw, it would emerge, had been texting with his girlfriend. He walked away unscathed.

This accident, and everyone it touches, is the focus of Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt Richtel’s book—from the dogged state trooper who sniffs out the truth, to Shaw’s trial judge, who carries around a marked-up copy of Les Misérables, which he requires Shaw to read as part of his sentence, to Shaw himself, who starts out arrogant and callous, denying he’d been texting, refusing to apologize to the widows of his victims.

But beyond his story is a wider narrative about the developing brain science on the consequences of spreading ourselves, and our attention, too thin. The massive uptick in distractions in our daily lives, through texts, emails, and social media, presents us with formidable challenges. For, while technology is evolving at a breakneck pace, “the brain is more or less staying put.” Multitasking, says Richtel, a New York Times science writer, is a myth. The human brain simply cannot keep up with this flood of knowledge, pings and distractions. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident, or dangerous, than on the road. Texting, researchers tell Richtel, impairs driving more than being drunk. It’s fascinating stuff.

Not all of A Deadly Wandering is as readable; some chapters spend too long on the traumas of peripheral characters. But Richtel’s narrative is saved by his hero’s transformation from rogue to redeemer. Shaw, once he admits what is plainly true—he “took two great men’s lives” because he was distracted by a text—emerges as a tormented and deeply human figure. He finds purpose as a crusader, bent on getting out his anti-texting message. To this day, he sobs while pleading with listeners, “Look at me, and say: ‘I don’t want to be that guy.’ ” The power comes not from Shaw’s words or his delivery, but what we can all recognize, eight years on, as a raw, bottomless grief. “Look what it’s done to those two families. Look what it’s done to me.”