Pulitzer Prize winning author Anthony Doerr talks about his new novel, "Cloud Cuckoo Land," and why he says his job as a writer is to reveal our interconnections as people, and as a planet.
Eight years ago, a 19-year-old college student in Utah was driving in the Rocky Mountains. His car jumped a divider and hit another car, causing an accident that killed two scientists on their way to work. The driver said he had no idea what happened, but phone records showed he was texting. The case was one of the first texting-while-driving accidents and helped spark state laws and a national awareness campaign. A New York Times journalist, who won a Pulitzer prize for his reporting on the use of cell phones while driving, is out with a new book about the accident. Matt Richtel argues texting while driving could be as dangerous as drunk driving, but may prove even harder to curb.
- Matt Richtel Technology reporter, New York Times. In 2010 he won the Pulitizer Prize for his series on the hazardous use of cellphones and other devices while driving.
Poll: Texting And Driving
Volkswagen’s Anti-Texting PSA
Volkswagen put movie-goers in the drivers seat with this PSA, launched in June. Since it aired, it’s received more than 28 million views on YouTube.
Read A Featured Excerpt
Excerpted from A Deadly Wandering. William Morrow © Matt Richtel 2014. All Rights Reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Almost all states now ban texting while driving, but about a million car crashes each year still involve someone using a cell phone or texting. Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times reporter Matt Richtel was one of the first journalists to highlight the hazards of using cell phones while operating a car.
MS. DIANE REHMIn a new book, he explains why it's difficult to stop drivers from texting. The title of the book, "A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention." Matt Richtel joins me in the studio. I'd like to hear from you. Certainly, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Find us on Facebook and Twitter. And we're looking for your input on your texting and driving habits.
MS. DIANE REHMTake our poll at drshow.org. We'll be discussing your feedback and results during the hour and posting the full results on our website tomorrow. Matt Richtel, it's good to have you here.
MR. MATT RICHTELWell, thank you for having me, Diane.
REHMMy pleasure. And I also want to let listeners know we posted a public service announcement video. It was made by Volkswagen. It's all about texting and driving. It's at our website, drshow.org. As many of you, I know, have seen it. It's received more than 28 million views on YouTube. You can see it right here at drshow.org. And Matt, your book focuses on one specific texting while driving accident. Tell us about Reggie Shaw and the crash.
RICHTELReggie Shaw. It's 2006. He is a good guy. He's 19 years old. He's in the northern most counties of Utah. He's kind of an all-American kid, but he's got a little bit of a checkered past that comes into play later and he's driving to work. It's 6:30 in the morning on Sept...
REHMIn the morning.
RICHTEL6:30 in the morning, still dark. And I'm looking over your shoulder, Diane, and I'm seeing rain and it's not quite raining like that, but it's a little bit of freezing rain. He's going 55 miles an hour. And behind him is a farrier, a horseshoe maker who's carrying two tons of horseshoes and horseshoe making equipment, a veritable missile at highway speeds and he starts to notice that Reggie is periodically wandering across the yellow divider.
REHMSo it's two lanes, one going this way, one coming at you.
RICHTELIn a beautiful verdant valley in this northern most area, the Wasatch Mountains all around. People are beginning to commute to work and among those people are two extraordinary men, truly. We often, you know, use the cliche rocket scientists. But coming the other direction from Reggie are two bonified rocket scientists, Keith O'Dell and Jim Furfaro, and the last time Reggie slips across the yellow divider, he clips these two men in a Saturn and they spin across the highway and they are broadsided by the farrier. Boom.
RICHTELKilled instantly. A hundred yards down the road, Reggie stops. His Chevy Tahoe virtually unscathed. He's unhurt. And he says, I don't know what happened. Maybe I hydroplaned.
REHMHe thinks maybe he hydroplaned.
RICHTELThat's what he tells the police.
REHMYeah. How much water do we know was on the ground at that time?
RICHTELWell, great question. It was nominal. And, in fact, up comes this guy, one of the many extraordinary characters in this story, a local state trooper named Bart Rindlisbacher and he says, just to your point, there's not much water on this road and it's hard to hydroplane going that speed, but...
REHMSomething funny here.
RICHTELSomething funny here. And he takes Reggie, in his passenger seat, to the local hospital, the Logan Hospital for a blood test, which is common...
REHMFor alcohol or drugs, yeah.
RICHTELExactly. And as they're driving, he notices that Reggie reaches into his pocket and pulls out his phone, which the trooper thinks must've buzzed or something silently or vibrated, and Reggie begins to text with one hand. And the end of the first chapter ends with a quote that gave me a shiver. It was just such a revelation. He said to me, the trooper, I realized in that moment Reggie was a one-hander.
REHMHuh. Using just his thumb or whatever, but somehow being able to do that and drive with the other hand at the same time.
RICHTELAt the same time. And so Trooper Rindlisbacher, who is known for his tenacity -- in fact, he's even gotten citizen complaints for his stubborn probing, determines, I think this -- it just doesn't add up. I think this guy's texting. And he launches what, in 2006, is a lonely, lonely probe because there's no infrastructure, there's no legal precedent and he's gonna figure out what happened.
REHMSo Reggie is taken to the hospital. He has no drug or alcohol symptoms. To whom does he make telephone calls?
RICHTELWhen he was driving or...
REHMNo, no, no. While the police officer is driving him.
RICHTELAh. I believe -- I actually don't know the answer to that question. I believe it's the same -- well, I hate to give away too much, but I believe it's the same person or among the people he texts is the same person who we later discover is, in part, involved in the texting that caused the wandering across the yellow divider.
REHMYou know, the wandering describes something deadly which you've already mentioned, that wandering across that center line, but it's also really to describe the powerful distraction that technology has brought into our lives.
RICHTELYeah, exactly. So over the course of this 18-month investigation, Rindlisbacher and another trooper, sort of Sherlock Holmes in the digital age, discover that Reggie has been texting 11 times in the minutes and seconds around the crash, maybe at the crash. And they discover this mystery number who they have to track down who he's been texting and do those interviews.
RICHTELBut setting that aside for a second, you're exactly right. The title of this book has many meanings, several meanings at least. One is the wandering across the yellow divider, speaks for itself. The other is the intense wandering that Reggie's mind had done at that moment and he is a proxy for the rest of us do. And also there's a larger question that public safety advocates will discuss, which is whether we are wandering off-course more broadly as a society through not recognizing the power of these devices.
REHMYou know, it's interesting. You mentioned you could look out the window here and see the rain. At the same time, as I sit here in the morning, having done some recording and then waiting to hear it played back to me, I turn around and watch the traffic going by here on Connecticut Avenue. I can't tell you the number of drivers who are talking on the phone. It has become a way of life.
REHMSo while Reggie could have been texting and it certainly sounds as though he was, people talking on the phone, you believe, and some scientists believe, are equally distracted.
RICHTELYeah. More than some. I would just pause on the word equally because there's gradations of distraction. If you are looking down and typing a text or dialing your phone or using your, you know, Pandora or your music, you are, Diane, you are in effect blind. You are not looking at the road. And with each passing second, you're talking about many yards of sheer blindness, piloting a missile. So that's one.
RICHTELBut talking also, even hands-free, most neuroscientists -- there are some who disagree, but most neuroscientists agree that is also what is called a cognitive distraction. And the reason for that is that your mind is, in effect, elsewhere, but your visual cortex, even your sight gets impinged because you're focused on the conversation. Many times, you may get away with it. Many people do get away with it.
RICHTELBut when you are in an instant, when the instant comes up, you must react. You are in serious straits and the number of accidents bears that out.
REHMYou know, the other day, I was driving along Wisconsin Avenue and looked to the side for an instant to look at what I thought was an absolutely gorgeous great Myrtle tree and when I looked back, the driver in front of me had stopped. And I barely missed him. That was just a brief second of looking to the side. So I think we have lots to talk about here.
REHMAnd if you'd like to join us, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. In case you'd like to know what's happened to our poll thus far, we've asked listeners about their texting and driving habits in a poll on our website, drshow.org. Thirty-five percent say they read and respond to texting while driving, 30 percent said they read them but only when they're at a complete stop, 42 percent of people who've had a texting and driving accident or close call say the experience have not changed their behavior.
REHMAstonishing. Matt Richtel is with me. He's Pulitzer Prize winner. His book, "A Deadly Wandering: A Tale of Tragedy and Redemption in the Age of Attention." And we should say that the case of Reggie and the crash was one of the first texting and driving cases in the country.
RICHTELYeah. So they -- here go these investigators in this gumshoe investigation and they come to the prosecutors. They say this -- we've got 11 texts to a young woman who they discover is just a friend of Reggie's and these are innocuous texts like good morning. And they interview her and it's quite dramatic. And they go to the prosecutors, and the prosecutors in Logan County aren't sure what to do because there's no legal precedent. At this point, there are no laws.
REHMBut two people are dead.
RICHTELI couldn't say it any -- any better than that. And there is, in this county, a tenacious, zealous victims advocate who was a big part of this story who had suffered a lot of kind of abuse as a child and fashioned herself a bit of a poor man's Erin Brockovich. I mean, she didn't want, you know, accolades but she would be -- if she got something under her -- if something got under her skin, she went for it.
RICHTELAnd she pushed these prosecutors, and they brought negligent homicide charges against Reggie Shaw. But I wanted -- just to go back to what's so interesting about him as a proxy for us. What he's doing -- what he did is what we are still doing many years later. He got a lawyer, he said he didn't do it. He prevaricated. He denied. And so, there was this standoff between a guy who cloaked himself behind uncertain law and uncertain proof and a legal precedent that wasn't there yet.
RICHTELHere we are today with 40 percent of people saying they're not chastened by having been in a -- wreck or near wreck. And what also comes to mind for me is the reason why Reggie couldn't resist. He's a good kid. He is a very good guy and he can't resist this innocuous text. And I think that what this book gets into is why Reggie couldn't resist and why your readers and -- why your listeners are having an awful time -- awful hard time not resisting their texts.
REHMWell, I wish if you have had such a hard time resisting texting while driving, I wish you'd go to our website, drshow.org and see the public service announcement video made by Volkswagen about texting and driving. You can see it at drshow.org. Once you see it, it may give you pause about ever, ever doing it again. How did you first learn about Reggie and the accident?
RICHTELI first learned about Reggie in 2009. We were amid a series of stories. Actually, we were going to do one story at the New York Times about distracted driving. And I spent the first half of that year while doing my other duties reporting what was a very, very lengthy story about one particular case, not Reggie's, and the science of why we can't turn away from our devices and why we're having so much trouble.
RICHTELIt ran in July and it was truly a kind of remarkable journalistic moment, Diane, because you throw all these stories out into the world and you know -- you never know what people are going to respond to. And it was like -- we put this story out into the world thinking we do one. And the reaction was like none other than I've ever experienced.
REHMSo tell me what that first story was about. Was it that we cannot leave these devices?
RICHTELIt was a story about a terrible crash in Oklahoma where a young man was not texting, Diane. He had his phone to his ear and he ran a red light and he killed a woman who was going out to get cat food. And it was a story of the pursuit of him and the reasons why this had become epidemic. How big the numbers were. And just the touch of the science about why things were irresistible. And the number of letter the Times got just blew us away. And so my editor said, well, Matt, you spent six months thinking about this, what else do you have in your notebook?
RICHTELAnd I said, well, let me tell you about a young man named Reggie Shaw. And I'd heard about him and I went out and spent some time at the crash site and met this remarkable young man and we did a story that September about him. It wasn't that long, but it sort of showed how Oklahoma -- I mean, sorry -- how Utah, thanks to Reggie Shaw who ultimately redeems himself in the story, creates the toughest law against texting and driving.
RICHTELAnd I sort of circuited his tale, but that's how I got to know him. And the story stuck with me. And it stuck with me as I began to understand the science more and more and discovered how startling it was and thought, these things got to be put together in some way.
REHMTell me about the science. Tell me what it does, even when we've got, we think, full attention to the road, yet we're having a conversation perhaps hands free.
RICHTELSo the best way for me -- the best image that I found to understand it myself and to articulate it is to picture a -- our forbearer, an ancient, you know, a caveman or cavewoman tending to a fire. And the person hears a lion roar or, I think even more evocative, gets a tap on the shoulder from behind. And I would just ask you the rhetorical question. If you got a tap on the shoulder from behind, do you think you could resist turning around?
RICHTELImpossible, because you don't know is it opportunity or worst yet, is it threat?
RICHTELSo, when the phone rings and you're in your car, it is a proverbial tap on the shoulder from anyone anywhere -- from anyone anywhere in the world quite literally. Is it your boss? Is it your spouse? Is it a potential mate? You don't know. Is it opportunity or threat? So, first of all, among probably little five pieces of evidence I'll add up for you here. First of all, that's a pretty tough one to resist. May I just tell you what's happening inside your brain at that moment?
RICHTELOkay. So you can use either the driving analogy or back to the fire. You're at the fire, this forbearer, and building the fire takes the front part of your brain. It's called the free -- prefrontal cortex. And it is the thing, in many ways, that makes us human. It separates us from animals who don't have the capacity to be making these decisions and attending with the kind of focus that creates art, Diane. Civilization, you know, architecture, go down the list.
RICHTELBut when lion roars or when the tap on the shoulder comes, you get a signal to that part of the brain that is intently focusing on a project from the back of your neck, the reptile parts of your brain. These primitive parts that send a signal and they say, lion, run. And you got no choice. So here's your device and it is saying, I don't know, what is it? Is it a lion? Is it, you know, please pick up milk on the way home or we will have an argument. Boom.
RICHTELIt takes over and asks you to pay attention to it. It subverts or hijacks the part of your brain that's trying to focus on a task. But, Diane, that is but one of the things that is happening that makes that ring, that ping so irresistible.
REHMSo what you're saying is that if you have that ping, that tap on the shoulder, you turn attention away from the fire of necessity.
REHMBecause it's gotten to your brain, this tap or this ringing telephone. Takes the fullness of your attention away from what's in front of you.
RICHTELIt is your survival mechanism. It is deeply engrained. And you might say, well, Matt, I know most this stuff is spam, it's irrelevant. So I think the number, 67 percent of the stuff we get is spam. Wouldn't that condition me to look -- to ignore it. But remarkably enough -- and I think this is one of the most powerful pieces of science that I've come to understand in this book. Remarkably enough, the fact that it is largely irrelevant actually makes your device more magnetic.
RICHTELAnd the reason that is goes back to B.F. Skinner and a concept called intermittent reinforcement. You're nodding. You know already where I'm going. So picture a rat in a cage and the rat is conditioned -- the experiment is rat press a lever and you don't know when food is going to come down. And so, the rat gets conditioned to press it over and over and over again. It's called intermittent reinforcement because sometimes food comes, sometimes it doesn't.
RICHTELIf you'll forgive the comparison of rats to the rest of us, rodents to us as drivers, if you don't know whether the thing is good or bad, you're kind of waiting for the good thing. It is a veritable slot machine in your pocket.
REHMDo we have any idea how many accidents across the country have occurred or are occurring involving texting and driving each year?
RICHTELWe have an idea and it is very imprecise. And so, first, I'll tell you the idea and then I'll tell you why it's imprecise. The idea comes from estimates based on how many people are texting and talking. And it's about 1.5 million of 5.6 accidents a year from the National Safety Council. About 1.2 I think come from phone use and about 280,000 come from texting. A study recently done showed that 3,000 teens die a year from texting, now exceeding the drunk driving numbers.
RICHTELBut why are those numbers imprecise? They're imprecise because we don't have the recording capacities. People lie at the scene. And I could give you maybe after the break -- I see we have one -- I can tell you just how hard it is to figure out these numbers.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I want to go back for a moment to this young man because, as you said, Reggie Shaw lied when he said, "I wasn't texting. I planed" or "I don't know what happened."
REHMAnd then through sleuthing...
REHM...it was found that he had texted some 11 times at the precise time or thereabouts of the accident itself. How long did he carry on the "I don't know what happened" statement?
RICHTELIt was the better part of two years. I mentioned earlier that Reggie had something in his past, and I won't go into too much of it. But he is -- he's quite, in his own way, both an ordinary and an extraordinary character. And he'd let down his community or felt he had and his family once before in a situation where he had lied. He's a very nice Mormon -- young Mormon man, LDS. And he had done something that betrayed the values he professed to believe in. And he didn't want to let his family and community down again.
RICHTELAnd so, he entrenched himself. And even as the phone records came out, well, his brother who was a lawyer, his family, a loving wonder -- as I've come to know them, a wonderful family, but they all hunkered down and said, well, you can't prove it was at the exact moment. You can't prove that it caused the distraction. There's no legal precedent. And then truly something remarkable happened.
RICHTELWe were talking about what seem like two separate things -- his case and the neuroscience. But also in Utah, of all places, is one of the preeminent neuroscientists when it comes to driver distraction. His name is David Strayer. And going back to the '90s, he had been pioneering the science about driver distraction and he winds up testifying in a pretrial hearing more than two years after the accident and he explains what was happening inside Reggie's brain.
RICHTELAnd Reggie, who had been denying, who had been saying he couldn't remember, sits in the -- next to his lawyer and he says, oh, my God, I did it. I now understand. It was the science, Diane, of all things that gave him the revelation that allowed him in turn to become maybe the single most important voice opposing texting and driving and helping in this cause.
REHMSo you came to really fully believe that he did not know at the time or shortly thereafter the accident that his texting had really caused.
RICHTELI've spent a ton of time with Reggie, and I will tell you right out, I really like the guy. He is -- he bares his soul, as the secretary of transportation former Ray LaHood says, like nobody. And he has bared it to me and opened up about -- with a candor about so many things in his life. And I tell you, my own impression is I'm not sure if he knows what exactly happened when he was texting. I'm not sure if he can't remember.
RICHTELI'm not sure if he's walled it off. I'm not sure he can tell. And I think it goes back and forth for him. I even have the notes in the book, which he gave me with permission from the counselor he went and talked to. And you can see him wrestling with these questions even then.
REHMMatt Richtel is a reporter covering technology for the New York Times. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his series of articles on the hazardous use of cell phones and other devices while driving. His new book is titled, "A Deadly Wandering." Short break, and we'll be right back.
REHMAnd as we talk about Matt Richtel's book, "A Deadly Wandering," all about texting and driving and distracted driving, we've asked our listeners to take a poll about texting and driving habits. You can go to our website, drshow.org. The poll numbers themselves have changed, however, the percentages have not. 35 percent say they read and respond to text messages while driving, 30 percent say they read them, but only when at a complete stop.
REHMThis is literally the killer. 42 percent of people who've had a texting and driving accident or close call say the experience has not changed their behavior. How can that be, Matt Richtel?
RICHTELI wish all the listeners could be in the studio. The gesticulation is completely...
REHMI mean, really.
RICHTEL...that Diane's doing is totally appropriate. It's...
REHMIt blows my mind, truly.
REHMWe've gotten a lot of texts. Here's one from -- or tweets. Here's one from Steven. "What's the difference between talking hands-free on the phone and talking to another person in the car? Isn't that distracting, too?"
RICHTELRemarkably enough, one of the best bits of trivia in this, it's actually safer. You're driving safety is enhanced by talking to an adult next to you and that's because the adult next to you acts as a second set of eyes and they say, hey, it's raining, slow down, you know. In this case, the proverbial backseat driver is your buddy, but the person on the phone can't possibly see what's going on.
REHMHow about this one from Dave? "How is talking on the phone and driving different cognitively from listening to NPR?"
RICHTELWell, first of all, you're not talking back to NPR so you're not en...
REHMI bet they are.
RICHTELWell, they might be. They might be. You know, I guess, please don't call in. But it's a different level of engagement.
RICHTELAnd by the way, we shouldn't make a mistake here. 40,000 people a year were dying in cars. It was an epidemic before this. So, you know, we talked briefly on the break about what is distracted driving. Not to be too dismissive, but it speaks for itself. We're not saying here that distraction is new. What we're saying here is that it has gotten a systemic ally, that this is a systemic issue and you can see it in the numbers.
RICHTELIf you look across the world, U.S. traffic figures -- across the world, there's been generally an improvement in traffic safety owing to airbags, antilock brakes, wider roads, billions spent. But the U.S. has done almost the worst among industrialized nations. We still lose 11 people per hundred thousand compared to, like, around five in many other nations.
REHMInteresting. So send us your email, take our poll. You can go to drshow.org. We are collecting all your feedback. We'll post the full results tomorrow. Now, let's open the phones. 800-433-8850. First to Roberto in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. You're on the air.
ROBERTOHi, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
ROBERTOSo first of all, I'm sad to admit that I fall in that 42 percent that has had a close call and even though I changed my habit, I still, from time to time, check my text messages while I'm driving. And I think that I'm ready for this decision to be taken out of my hands completely. I think that cell phone providers can partner with car makers and with our cell phone makers to prohibit you from utilizing these apps, these text messaging apps, any of these other apps that allow you to take your eyesight from the road to your phone.
ROBERTOI think they have the technology. They can very easily sense when you're moving at a speed greater than 50 miles an hour.
REHMWhat do you think?
RICHTELYeah, I think it's a -- Roberto, thanks for you call and I just did a story in the New York Times a few weeks ago about some of the technology that's come up that can, in effect, block these things. But what's interesting is cell phone companies, which once were huge enablers of this and have joined the cause and they now offer free apps to help you stop texting and driving, the conventional wisdom is that these are not widely used and it's for the reasons we described earlier.
RICHTELYou can't resist. So then the question becomes, how do we reconcile the attitudes, we all know this is dangerous, with the behaviors, we can't stop ourselves? And that is the question that is in front of us right now. Will it be technology? Will it be tougher law enforcement? What is going to get us to change? And I have some ideas, but Roberto, you know, the technology is starting to come out.
RICHTELWill people embrace it? As of yet, not.
REHMWhat's the difference between texting while driving and drunk driving?
RICHTELWell, first of all, one difference is we're able to measure drunk driving so we know how much it's happening and drunk driving still remains a serious problem. It depends what you're doing and the texting experience. But if you're looking down and texting, you are way worse off. I said it before and I'll say it again. You are blind. Unless you're blind drunk, your eyes are, at least, open.
RICHTELI hate to make this comparison 'cause drunk driving is still a major problem that kills 10,000 people, but when you are texting, you are blind.
REHMAll right. To Charlie in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Hi, there.
CHARLIEGood morning, Diane.
CHARLIEThanks the opportunity.
CHARLIEAnd good morning, sir. Appreciate the candor of your book. I just wanted to chime in and say, I agree. I live in the university town and I can sit at a stoplight and look across from me and there's at least five people that I can pick out texting. I did want to chime in on the earlier story about Reggie and I agree, yeah, he was totally did the wrong thing, but at the same time, the hydroplaning thing, I think something was skipped over there.
CHARLIEActually, it's more dangerous in the first 15 to 20 minutes after rain starts because the water mixes with the oils on the road. I was a professional driver for a while and this is actually the most dangerous time after a rain storm starts for hydroplaning to occur.
REHMBut are you saying it's more dangerous for hydroplaning or simply sliding or slipping or losing control.
CHARLIEOr slipping, or any -- yeah, but there is a difference, you're correct, ma'am.
RICHTELBut can I just address, Charlie, the first part of your point about being a college town 'cause it's actually very pertinent in this respect. We talked about the brain earlier, how there's this collision between the signal coming from the reptile parts to the control parts. In younger people, in particular, that executive control, the prefrontal cortex is less developed. The people who are texting the most are most susceptible to being unable to resist the ping of that survival mechanism 'cause their brain is not fully developed.
RICHTELSo it doesn't surprise me, in a college town, which, you know, it's very pertinent part of the conversation.
REHMAre you suggesting that the use of these devices is becoming addictive?
RICHTELI think that the research will show, the researchers will say that his has addictive properties and is extremely habit-forming. The word addictive has particular meaning, but I think absolutely -- and, in fact, we didn't touch on this. Another bit of evidence here is when you begin to -- when you use your device, you get what the researchers call is a dopamine squirt, a little rush of adrenalin to your pleasure centers.
RICHTELJust touching it, whether or not you're getting information, when you do a cause and effect, you get a little squirt of pleasure. So you do it over and over again. You become a habituated to it and guess what. In its absence, you feel bored and you seek it out. That is a hugely reinforcing reward cycle.
REHMAll right. To Mike in Athens, Ohio. Hi, you're on the air.
MIKEThank you, Diane, for taking my call.
MIKEYes, sir. I haven't read your book yet and I know out here where it's lightly populated, I was teaching a woman to drive a car and I told her ironclad rule, that phone goes off and ringing goes off, too. When we hit the divided four-lane highway, we're doing 60 miles an hour. I said, okay, you're in a comfortable car. You're doing 60. It's nice out there. You're in cruise control. It's just like, you know, sitting on your sofa watching a TV.
MIKEI said, and when you see that sign that says 60 miles an hour, it doesn't give you any clue about how far you're traveling at once second. You know, I said, it adds up to about like 88 feet per second.
MIKEAnd when you look at a divided four-lane highway, I said, that's -- in one second, you can cover the entire width of that highway. And so I think that -- is there any kind of a national push to give all the people who are taking driving tests some kind of understanding about how far they actually travel in one second, that one second that causes that distraction, whether you're swatting the kids, drunk driving, texting, anything?
RICHTELYeah, I can't speak to the driver education classes, per se, but you are exactly right. I mean, we're talking, if I'm doing my math, about, you know, five seconds is a football field so a simple test -- or maybe it's two or three seconds is a football field. A simple text, you've gone a football field in length. You really don't know how far you're traveling. But, Diane, I know we want to take one more.
RICHTELI just want to -- I would be remiss if I did not mention something at -- a final chapter of this book, which is Reggie's redemption. And I just -- it was so moving for me to hear. After he understood the science and came clean, he has become truly singular. I mean, I mentioned Secretary LaHood who calls him, you know, an American hero. The prosecutors who were uncertain whether to prosecute him and ultimately did say he's done more than anybody they've ever seen to redeem himself.
RICHTELThe mission presidents who, one of them, the LDS mission president who helped bring the legislation says he has served a mission greater than he could've ever otherwise achieved. So he's become a truly remarkable character.
REHMDid he go through a full trial or did he simply admit to guilt?
RICHTELJust prior, he admitted to guilt and part of his sentence was to do some community service. And in a remarkable story, the Utah legislature -- now know Utah. This is one of the red states. They don't want anybody reaching in the car and telling them what to do. And there was a legislature named Stephen Clark, you know, another very fine gentleman, I spent a lot of time with him and he was your, you know, garden variety conservative legislator who nearly got in a wreck texting while driving.
RICHTELHe admitted that to me. And he brought legislation just about the time Reggie's trial was poised to start and he felt he had no hope of getting it through in this red state. And there was a hearing. And just after Reggie admitted guilt, they had this packed room. It looked like it wouldn't pass and they said, does anybody else want to come up and speak. Back of the room, may I have a word, please? Up walks Reggie.
RICHTELAnd the people who were there will tell you some of the legislator on the panel were texting as he walked up and during the other testimony and he said something to the effect, it's in the book, it's very moving to hear, you know those two rocket scientists you heard about? I killed them. Law passes. Second state in the country. Toughest law for many years was the state of Utah. And the neuroscientist, David Strayer, who testified in the pretrial hearing said, they ought to call it Reggie's law.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's to go to Ed in Rockford, Illinois. You're on the air. Hey, Ed, you're on the air. Maybe you're not. How about Megan in Tampa, Florida. Are you there?
MEGANYes, ma'am. Thank you for taking my call.
MEGANIt's very interesting to hear. I'm both a (word?) of your show and the current topic. We know now not only anecdotally that texting and driving or distracted driving in general, Smartphones, emailing, Facebooking, it's an issue that's gonna continue to grow as we continue to become more and more reliant technology. But what I'm curious of is why isn't there more dialogue about the technology the actual vehicle industry can bring to the table. A previous caller had made mention of cell phone companies, as well as, of course, your guest, the type of restrictions that can be put on cell phones if you're going over a certain mile an hour, thing of that nature.
MEGANBut there are vehicles that can sense proximity. They will stop, a full stop, and prevent a crash. The particular vehicle I drive, it will stop if I don’t see something coming. It used to be something that was a little bit unattainable due to the cost, but it's becoming more economically feasible and I don't see why -- we know that we react the way that we do. Now, we have scientific evidence showing that we will continue to use our devices.
REHMAll right. What about the automobile industry?
RICHTELYeah. It's a great question, I mean, and it's a real source of tension in the public safety community and among some policymakers, who are very frustrated at the auto industry, saying that they have become, in effect, the latest version of enablers here. And if you go -- towards the end of the book, I enumerate some of the things that car companies are doing where you can have screens that let you get Facebook updates.
RICHTELAnd the caller is essentially suggesting, well, it's here to stay so why don't we make the safest version of it. And I think, given that you have 30 to 40,000 deaths a year, the public safety community would say that's not acceptable to bring in the auto industry to enable. The auto industry will take precisely the position, people are doing it anyway, let's try to do it in a way with voice activation, consumers want it. It's not clear whether consumers really want it or the auto industry, through its marketing and seeing an opportunity to create another revenue stream, is, you know, helping push the demand.
REHMSo as more and more autos have within them Bluetooth, automatic...
REHMAbsolutely. I mean, what do we do?
RICHTELWell, here, that's the question. What do we do? And I'll tell you where the conversation seems to be headed. We've got 45 states outlawing texting, about 10 states, if memory serves, that don't allow hands-free. And something's not working because the gap between attitudes -- the attitudes have shifted, it's wrong, 96 percent of people say, and behaviors, 35 percent are still doing it, remains wide. What do we do? People are beginning to talk about the idea that maybe these laws are insufficient right now because they're not deterring behavior.1
REHMPulitzer Prize-winning reporter Matt Richtel. His new book is titled, "A Deadly Wandering." Do take our poll about texting and driving at our website, drshow.org. We'll post the full results tomorrow. Matt, congratulations.
RICHTELWell, thank you for having me. It was great.
REHMAnd thanks for listening all, I'm Diane Rehm.
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