Episode 23: Summer Book Club - A Deadly Wandering, Part 2

As part of the podcast series Solutions for Higher Education, SUU President Scott L Wyatt will lead a “Summer Reading Club” focusing on a new book each month. Readers who join the podcast will be given an introduction to the book by Scott Wyatt and podcast host Steve Meredith near the beginning of each month, and then near the end of the month, an expert guest will join the conversation to give additional insight and context to the completed reading.

June - A Deadly Wandering: A Mystery, a Landmark Investigation, and the Astonishing Science of Attention in the Digital Age by Matt Richtel
A Deadly Wandering by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Matt Richtel explores the enormous changes that current technology has brought to our lives, and especially to the ability to focus our attention on tasks at hand. [Listen to Part 1 - the book introduction]

This is our discussion episode after reading the book. Joining the podcast are special guests Dr. David Strayer and Terryl Warner, both who were parts of the story as it unfolded in real life and the book. 

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and joining me in-studio today, as always, is President Wyatt. Hi, Scott.

Scott Wyatt: Thank you, Steve it’s nice to be here.

Meredith: Good to be here with you. Always a pleasure. Today, we are finishing up a discussion of the first of our books in our summer book club, the book A Deadly Wandering by Matt Richtel and we have two people joining us by teleconference who played enormously important roles in that story and I’m going to ask you if you’ll introduce them.

Wyatt: OK, let’s start with you Dr. Strayer. So, Dr. Strayer, welcome to our show today.

Dr. David Strayer: Well thank you very much for having me.

Wyatt: It is fun to be able to talk to you after having read this book a couple of times and thinking about it, it’s just really an honor to be able to visit with you and have you help us think through the implications of this story.

Strayer: Yeah, I’m looking forward to that.

Wyatt: You are a psychology faculty member at the University of Utah?

Strayer: That’s correct. I’ve been at the University of Utah since 1991.

Wyatt: Ph.D. from Illinois?

Strayer: Yep, from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Wyatt: And we’ll get back into this just a little bit so that everybody gets a sense of your background and your research area as we move through this. Our other guest today is Terryl Warner. Terryl, welcome to our show.

Terryl Warner: Thank you, it’s a pleasure to be back.

Wyatt: And the book is interesting because just about every other chapter is titled “Terryl”.

Warner: [Laughs]

Meredith: That’s right.

Wyatt: Terryl, you are the Director of Victim Services in the Cache County Attorney’s Office in Logan, Utah.

Warner: Yes.

Wyatt: And a very prominent character in this story.

Warner: It’s been an interesting experience.

Wyatt: Yeah. So, let’s begin at the beginning. Hopefully most of our listeners have read the book, but there will be a lot of people that will listen to this without having read it and then this will motivate them to read it. But let’s start out—can you give us a brief summary of the story as it starts out and what gets us into this deadly wandering. 

Warner: So, this book is about a young man who was driving to work one morning—early one morning—and crossed the center divider and hit two rocket scientists, Jim Furfaro and Keith O’Dell. It caused them to go into a spin and they were instantly killed when they were hit by a third vehicle. And the story is basically our investigation through the criminal case in filing criminal charges and moving forward in helping Reggie to pay a debt to society as well as help him with coming to terms with what he had done and bringing to light that texting and driving is extremely dangerous. Reggie is just an everyday, average kid—going to school, he was working, he was just a young kid and he could have been your son, my son, anybody’s brother—just the everyday, average kid that made a terrible, deadly decision one day. And this case brings to light that deadly decision.

Wyatt: Well, and as we pick up on in the book, his challenge is with confronting this and then moving forward, but we learn more about him from you, Terryl, and Dr. Strayer. He is an average, everyday kid, but what we learn is that he is a great, average, everyday kid.

Warner: He is.

Wyatt: He’s a kid that’s got terrific character and that’s part of our story is some of these pieces that maybe go beyond the book.

Strayer: I’ll say with respect to Reggie that my first meeting with him of course was in the trial that dealt with the crash, but thereafter, one of the things he did was he went out and told all kinds of groups—he was on Oprah, he was on every medium he could—to tell people just how dangerous this was. And instead of basically just drawing into a shell, he tried to give back and tried to basically go beyond the call of duty and say, “I don’t want what happened to me and to the victims in this crash to happen to anybody else, and here’s the cautionary tale, because watch out.—it could happen to any of us if you’re not careful.”

Warner: Right.

Wyatt: I pay more attention to this because I’ve read this book a couple of times, but as I’m driving down the road, the number of people that I see in the lane next to me on their phones doing a quick text or something…it’s really quite shocking how many people.

Warner: It’s really scary.

Strayer: Yeah, those numbers have just exploded. Unfortunately, we see a huge increase in the number of people who have phones and then bring them into the car and perhaps not surprisingly, we’re seeing significant increases in the number of fatalities on the roadways in the United States. And that reverses a trend of over 50 years of declining crashes. And the most likely culprit is the fact that we’re becoming more and more of a distracted driving society.

Warner: That’s a really scary thought. We have spent an enormous amount of money and time and universities and researchers and companies have spent enormous amounts of money to make cars safer—we have PSAs, we have been working on reducing traffic fatalities, and cars should be safer today than they were 50 years ago. We have airbags, we have seatbelts that are better, we have better technology, but when we bring a phone into the car, some of those systems…no matter how many airbags you have, if you hit somebody head-on, we’re going to have a problem.

Wyatt: Yeah. So, there’s the…part of the story is Reggie’s response, and I think maybe that’s a great place for us to launch from because it helps us recognize how important this topic is. And when we were discussing this before, we were talking about what Reggie sees when he looks in the mirror today.

Warner: Right.

Wyatt: Why don’t you talk to us about that?

Warner: OK. So, one of the things that we talked about, and I don’t remember, Dr. Strayer, where we were, but he—I think it was on Oprah—but he explained that every day, he looks in the mirror, he gets up, he looks in the mirror, and he sees the person that killed two fathers, two husbands. That’s got to be a difficult, horrific way to live your life. That every day, that’s your first memory, “I killed two people.” And that’s basically—I think he testified to that at the Legislature as well—that this was a good kid who, as a good kid, he did really well in high school, he was athletic, and he made this terrible decision and that’s how he starts his day. And we’re years after the accident and he still feels that way.

Strayer: One of the other things he did was there was initially legislation to try and restrict texting in truck drivers on the Utah highways and it was kind of being stalled out in some of the committees in the Legislature here in Utah, and he asked to come up and talk and they were going to give him just a few seconds to just kind of say his spiel. And he was really eloquent about, “This is the worst thing you want to do. You don’t want to have someone who’s got a semi driving down the road texting because you’re just going to kill all kinds of people.” And he probably, more than anything else, was responsible for getting the Utah Legislature to see the real problem it was and to make that bill actually advance out of committee. And that’s really an amazing thing he was able to do and it was just the eloquence of his testimony.

Warner: Right. At that time, when we went up to the Legislature that day it was the third time the bill had been heard I believe in the committee, and it just hadn’t been passed out of the committee. And we had families there, we had parents that had testified that had lost a child to texting and driving, and I remember I had this very eloquent, I was told by Representative Clark, “You have three minutes.” And I’m like, “Great, I will use two minutes and fifty-nine seconds.” And I had this great, eloquent, speech prepared. And, you know me, Scott, I was really prepared for this. And I look around the room and the room is packed and legislators are texting and nobody was even listening to me. [All laugh] And I remember just going, “Oh my gosh!” And my husband kind of was there to support me and he said, “I don’t know if anybody is even listening to you, Terryl.” And then he got up, Reggie got up, and he said, “Ms. Warner talked about a case.” And with that, he started to cry. And he said, “I could be your son, I could be your son…” and you could have heard a pin drop in that room. And he didn’t take three minutes, he took a lot longer, and you’re right, Dr. Strayer, I know that the legislators referred to that as “Reggie’s Law” because had it not been for him, I don’t believe we would have been successful that year again.

Wyatt: So, make sure that we’re tracking with this well. What is the law? What is the law that was passed then and what is the current law in Utah?

Warner: The current law in Utah is basically, it’s run like a DUI. If you kill somebody and you’re texting and driving, you’re looking at a second-degree felony now. It’s run just like a DUI. It’s actually the toughest law in the country is what it was touted as because we said, “We have had enough information—it’s kind of like DUIs—anybody that knows anything about driving knows that DUIs are dangerous and that you have a chance of killing somebody. We all know now, we’ve been put on notice, that if you’re texting and driving and you hit and kill somebody, you’ve had enough notice that it’s dangerous that we’re going to charge you with a second-degree felony.”

Wyatt: If I am driving down the road and I text, and because of that, I go over the line and hit another car and someone dies, that’s a second-degree felony? One to fifteen years in prison?

Warner: Right.

Strayer: One thing that’s useful about the Utah law is that it doesn’t just single out texting. It says anything where you pick up the phone and are looking at the phone, holding the phone, is against the law. It’s a felony. And just as an example of the most recent Uber driving who ran over a pedestrian in Arizona, well he was holding the phone and he was streaming video to his phone while he was in that autonomous Uber vehicle. So, this is happening on a daily basis. We’re seeing that there’s all kinds of ways that people can be distracted by their phone where they’re holding that phone, so Utah law is good and says you can’t stream videos, interact with Facebook, send text messages, or any of the things you could do by holding the phone.

Wyatt: So, now we’ve kind of set the story with Reggie and this accident in texting. Dr. Strayer, let’s back up a little bit and pick up on your research on attention and how you got into this business.

Strayer: Yeah. Well, I mean at the University of Utah, I’m a professor in psychology and I study—I’m a cognitive neuroscientist—so understanding the brain and in particular, how the brain works and how we divide attention or try and multitask and things like that. That research really comes out of aviation and in the early 50s, we found that pilots were crashing their planes, not because the pilot did something wrong and not because they plane failed, but because mainly, the pilot was overloaded. We tried to have them do too many things. And there’s an obvious 50-year history trying to understand the multitasking brain and trying to make aviation safer by creating the sterile cockpit so that the pilot doesn’t get distracted by all kinds of non-flying related activities. And so, at work that day when I started looking at this issue of what happens when we are driving a vehicle, well, the cars are starting to become more and more complex and we’re bringing phones and smart phones into the car, and so lots of lessons that we learned with aviation psychology that made planes and flying safer apply to the modern world with the smart phone we carry with us.

Wyatt: Yeah. So, then what did you learn about aviation that was so helpful? What is it about distraction or having so many things…how easy is it for us to multitask? Maybe that’s one way to get into this.

Strayer: Yeah, that’s a really good way to put it. It turns out we humans don’t multitask very well and we’ve done a lot of research, and others have as well, trying to understand how our brains try and do two things at the same time. And for the most part, the vast majority of us don’t do that well. We studied thousands of people across the world, and we found about 2% that are better at multitasking than most of us—we call those folks “super taskers”—but the vast majority of us, the 98% of us, are not very good. When we try and do two things at once, something starts to get lost in the translation. And especially when you mix driving with texting or driving with doing any kind of multitasking activity in the car, you’re going to make driving less safe. You’re not going to see where you’re going, you’re not going to see pedestrians or other vehicles, and so you just get that impairment that rises to or above the impairment that you would see if you were drunk. It’s a big impairment, and our brains simply can’t multitask the way we think that they do. They just don’t.

Wyatt: So, what happens when I’m driving down the road—there’s a few scenarios that we could run through—generally speaking, what happens when I am driving down the road and I want to change the channel on the radio and I look down and flip around with the knobs?

Strayer: Well, we know that if you take your eyes off the road for more than two seconds, you start to see an increase in the crash risk because you’re not looking where you’re going. And the average text takes about four and a half seconds to read. So, in the case of Reggie, he was taking his eyes off the road for prolonged periods of time. And the vehicle that was driving behind Reggie couldn’t see what was going on in the car at the time, but what they noticed was that Reggie kept veering out of his lane, veering out of his lane, veering out of his lane. What, it turns out, he was doing was Reggie was looking at and sending text messages, and so every time he was looking at and reading a text and trying to send something back, he wasn’t looking where he was going and he just drifted out of his lane. And that really was exactly what the cause of this crash that resulted in two people losing their lives, was just looking at a phone to try and read a simple text.

Wyatt: When we read the book, what we discover is that Reggie was really proficient in texting. Far better than me. He can do this with his eyes closed almost, really fast…it’s one thing that the investigators discovered when they were talking to him, isn’t it?

Warner: Right.

Wyatt: So, if I can send a text in ten seconds, he could send it in four or five. But four or five is…

Strayer: Well, at highway speeds, think about the distance you’re travelling where your eyes are closed. And here’s a way of thinking about it: you might be lulled into thinking that you could text and driver, but here’s a different scenario. Imagine that I said, “Close your eyes and drive for that same period of time.” You’d start to feel really uncomfortable. It’s just that when you’re reading that text, you just don’t realize the danger that you’re putting yourself and the risk you’re putting other people at when you’re engaging in that activity. But no one would close your eyes for five or ten seconds if you’re driving down the road, but they might do the same functional thing if they’re trying to text. But if you’re not looking where you’re going, it’s pretty obvious that you can’t get to your destination safely.

Wyatt: So, can I text something and pay attention to what I’m texting and also pay attention to the road? Is it possible to be doing both at the same time?

Strayer: No. Like I said, our lab has all kinds of sophisticated equipment so we can simultaneously record what happens when you’re paying attention to the road and when you’re switching to reading a text or talking on the phone, and you get this pattern of, “I’m attending to the world” and “I’m not.” It’s kind of an on/off function in terms of what you’re processing. And so, you become more or less like a robot, almost like a zombie driver, when you’re interacting with this technology. You’re either not looking at all where you’re going, or your eyes may be on the road but you’re just not processing anything with any degree of fidelity so anything that’s unexpected is going to be something you’re not going to be able to react to.

Wyatt: So, when you say that it’s like with blindfolded with your eyes closed, that’s not a comparison, that’s literally the way it is in your mind?

Strayer: Just because your eyes look at something, doesn’t mean you see it. To see it means you need to actually pay attention to the world you’re looking at. And so, if you’re on a phone, you can create something called “inattentional blindness” where something is right in front of you, but you don’t see it. It creates a “look but don’t see” type of impairment and that, of course, creates crashed. Just talking on a phone makes you miss about half of the things you normally would have noticed. If you take your eyes off the road to look at screen or look at your phone or read a text or anything like that, then you’re just simply not looking where you’re going and, as I mentioned before, more than two seconds of eyes off the road will significantly increase the risk of a crash and the longer your eyes are off the road, the greater the impairment. We know that things like you mentioned like changing the radio, we know that takes less than two seconds and that’s one of the reasons why—they’re not free of risk—but those risks are substantially lower than texting.

Wyatt: So, I can change the radio fast, but the text takes longer and that’s the difference?

Strayer: That’s right. If it’s less than two seconds, there really isn’t a huge elevation in the crash risk. But when you take your eyes off the road to look at a text—just reading a text, and there, it’s not about how fast you type, it’s how fast you can read even a really simple text—the average is over four and half seconds, so well into that area where you’re not going to be able to control your vehicle and that’s the observation that happened in terms of Reggie’s case. He was sending texts back and forth and he was just not staying in his lane. 

Wyatt: And he had no idea. He thought that he was in complete control and that he was aware of everything, but the driver behind him who spoke to the investigators later, Terryl, said he was all over.

Warner: Right. In fact, he said the thought to himself, “Oh, this isn’t going to end good.” Because there were a number of times that he went across the yellow line.

Strayer: Like he’s driving drunk. But instead of being intoxicated by alcohol, he’s intoxicated by that cell phone he’s holding.

Wyatt: So, you’ve mentioned this about the DUI and we’ve got a law in Utah now that treats a homicide or somebody that dies in an accident the same if they’re texting or something else that’s distracting them the same as it would be with a DUI. Do we know that that’s comparable then? Or how do we know that that’s comparable?

Strayer: We do, in fact, actually I know that Terryl can answer this as well, but in terms of crash risk, you’re more than twice the level of impairment when you’re texting as you would have been at a .08 blood alcohol level. So twice the crash risk of a drunk driver.

Wyatt: So, if I’m texting, it’s the equivalent of a .16 and the legal limit is .08?

Strayer: Right, that’s the level of impairment. You’re really driving in a way that’s just patently unsafe.

Wyatt: You’re beyond buzzed driving, you’re drunk?

Strayer: Yeah.

Warner: Right.

Meredith: Is part of that—I don’t mean to drill down too much into this, especially since I don’t really understand I guess all that much about the science—but you mentioned the time related to changing the radio station, but it isn’t just about time, right? There’s got to be…you have to formulate sentences as you’re texting and you have to read, it takes more of your mind away than just the physical act of turning the knob to change the channel. It’s not just looking away, it’s also cognitively being distracted.

Strayer: Correct. So, we think about what happens in terms of the driver being distracted is they take their eyes off the road for one reason, they take their hands off the wheel and so you can imagine reaching down to pick up a phone and send a text, but it also takes attention away. It takes your mind away from the drive, and that’s that cognitive source of distraction. And so, you get that kind of trifecta of visual, manual, and cognitive impairment and so the longer you’re impaired, the greater the crash risk. So, what we see is that they typical text is well above what’s considered to be safe and that’s why you get these really extremely high levels of impairment. And it’s quite obvious—the characteristics that we see in terms of Reggie swerving back and forth are very consistent with anybody who’s trying to do some kind of visual, manual, or cognitive act while driving the vehicle. They just don’t maintain control of their vehicle. They’ll drift out of their lane and then if there happens to be something on that other lane, there’s going to be a crash.

Wyatt: So, let’s…can we compare texting and driving with talking on the phone and driving? And if we do that, talking to a passenger while you’re driving. Can you weave those together?

Strayer: Sure. So, texting is worse. Texting has a crash risk of twice that of a drunk driver. The odds of crashing when you’re talking on a cellphone are four times higher, so you’re four times more likely to crash if you’re talking on a phone than if that same driver were driving without that level of distraction. That is the same level as someone who is driving at a .08 blood alcohol level. So, talking on the phone is the same as that .08 legal limit for alcohol impairment. Texting is much worse.

Wyatt: So, if I’m talking on the phone while I’m driving down the street, it is exactly the same as if I’m driving .08 (the risk of causing an accident). That’s what you’re saying?

Strayer: That’s correct. The crash risk is exactly the same. Now as you eluded to though, there’s another type of conversation that a driver can have where they’re talking to somebody in the vehicle, and it turns out that the driver, when they’re talking, they’re impaired. But it turns out that if there’s another adult in the car, they can actually notice the things the driver missed and so we see kind of this compensation, another set of eyes kind of helps reduce the crash risk so that we do not see an elevated crash risk for conversation between two adults as they’re driving down the road if they’re both in the car. But we do see an elevated crash risk if the driver were talking to that other person on a cell phone. And there was one exception to that in terms of kind of compensatory behavior where a second set of eyes help out, and that’s with teen drivers. Teens don’t know exactly how to drive yet and they don’t know when to kind of help the driver out or maybe even what they should do to help the driver out, so we don’t see that reduction in crash risk with teen drivers, but we do in terms of passenger conversation in the vehicle. So, they have very different profiles and kind of if you think about it for a second, you get another adult in the car and they have a vested interest in getting to their destination, they’ll kind of be like a “backseat driver” and kind of help the driver out either consciously or unconsciously. But that’s what the science says, that passenger conversations while driving aren’t that distracting but cell phone conversations are and texting is even much worse.

Wyatt: So, my wife Kathy will occasionally offer a suggestion as I’m driving…

Warner: [Laughs]

Meredith: What?

Wyatt: And my answer is usually, “Hey, it’s your life too. It’s one vehicle—we both go in our out together.” But I think we all sense that difference when somebody is actually actively helping us. Can we take this one more step? Because I think this is such a fascinating topic. What if I am listening to a book on tape? How does that compare?

Strayer: That’s much easier to listen to the radio or to a book on tape, unless the radio is blaring, but if it’s kind of normal volume, it doesn’t cause a lot of problems because you’re passively listening to that information. So, we’ve done studies listening to the radio doesn’t really elevate the risk at all. Listening to book on tape is a little bit more demanding because you’re trying to follow the thread of the conversation, but both of those are well below what we see with talking on a cell phone. So, there are things you can do in the car that aren’t super distracting, talking on a cell phone is bad and all of the other kinds of things where you’re using the phone to text or interact with social media and the like are off-the-charts bad.

Wyatt: The difference is how much attention it takes?

Warner: Right.

Strayer: And if you’re passively or actively involved. And so, if you’re just listening to the radio, you’re not really trying to generate speech and trying to figure out how to get everything out. Talking is actually harder than you think. Try speaking a second language, for example, and you’ll realize that it’s not easy to do. We take years to kind of master speech, and what happens is, when we’ve looked at it, we see that there’s kind of a conflict or the same parts of the brain that are trying to navigate you through space as you’re driving are also co-opted by speech, and so you get this kind of conflict of trying to get the same parts of the brain to do two things at the same time and that doesn’t work well.

Wyatt: I would acknowledge, though I don’t want to, that perhaps I had a telephone conference this morning and I was trying to do something else and I missed pieces of the conference. I found myself…I could only do one or the other, I couldn’t do both.

Strayer: Yeah, that’s a classic example you just described of the brain really just switching between one task and the other. We don’t multitask. Our brains, even though they have all of these neurons and are massively connected and interconnected, our behavior is essentially this serial processor that either I can do the talking, the driving, or whatever activity, but you try and multitask and performance gets worse.

Warner: You can’t do it, can you?

Wyatt: I think we…humans seem to be masters of self-deception and rationalization. We have an unbelievable ability to be defensive of ourselves, to protect ourselves—I think it’s a self-defense mechanism—and some of that plays into Reggie’s story, doesn’t it, Terryl? One of the interesting things about the book was how long it took Reggie to get to the point where he could realize that maybe he was the one that caused this accident.

Warner: Right. I think it was hard for him to come to terms with that.

Wyatt: Why don’t you take us through that? At the very beginning when the accident happens and the investigators show up and his family and everybody that is talking to him, he says that he wasn’t distracted at all.

Warner: Right, right.

Wyatt: I’m trying to remember; did he acknowledge at the beginning that he was texting? Or did he deny that but say that he was…

Warner: Yeah, he said he wasn’t texting. He didn’t…we had nothing. Bart had just come home from a tour serving in the military…

Wyatt: Bart is the investigator?

Warner: Rindlisbacher, yeah. And he said he didn’t know what had happened. He thought that the other car, he may have…I think his original statement maybe he hydroplaned because there was a little bit of rain…

Wyatt: That’s right.

Warner: And he thought that the other car…there was some blaming of the other driving, maybe he was close to the yellow line, but Bart’s over there—I mean by that time, Bart had been a trooper for quite a long time—and there wasn’t enough moisture, it was an SUV, there was no way that he was hydroplaning on something like that. But it took Bart months—I remember we talked periodically—and it took him months and even then, when we got the cell phone records, he didn’t really quite admit upfront that, “Yeah, that’s what I was doing.” And I’m not sure that he even remembers. Because I think that your brain just kind of shuts down when you’re driving and when you’re texting and I’m not sure he even quite remembered at that time. I think he wanted to block out the accident and not remember it and was really struggling emotionally with the accident.

Wyatt: Terryl, I have a question about that. So, in all of the hours and hours and months and years that you’ve known Reggie now, do you think that he was just trying to be protective and lie? Or do you think that he…that that was really what he was believing?

Warner: I think he truly believed…did not want to face that he had caused this accident. I really believe that he didn’t, he couldn’t face that. That’s a really hard thing when you’ve never really been in trouble with the law, you’ve never really made any major, terrible decisions that have lifelong consequences, I really just don’t think that he ever thought it was…he couldn’t come to terms with that emotionally. That’s such a hard thing. It’s much easier to think, “I hydroplaned. It wasn’t my texting, it was hydroplaning.”

Wyatt: Well, as we think through the transition of this story, the personal aspects of Reggie and what he’s thinking and going through and the transformation, it’s so emotional for those of us that read the book. But it also is interesting in the context of how we see ourselves. We think we can do more than we can do, and when we make a mistake, we tend to be a little self-defensive and think that it wasn’t a mistake and it’s those kinds of things that lead us into these problems and ignoring warning signs.

Warner: Right.

Strayer: I mean, what we’re doing really in many respects is just deceiving ourselves. So many people think that they’re better than average at multitasking, they think that they’re better than average drivers, in fact, I think that that’s 70% or 80% of people think that they are better than average. And that of course is impossible, you can’t have that many people that are better than average usually. And when we look at that kind of behavioral profile, people who use their phone a lot tend to score high in sensation XXX (34:25) and impulsivity and just kind of lower levels of cognitive control, so they just don’t have the ability to resist that phone if it goes off. So again, Reggie is just a normal kid. He’s just like everybody else and the concern here is don’t think, “Look at that guy there.” Basically, what happened to him could happen to anybody else so you have to make a concerted effort to say, “I’m not going to use the phone, I’m not going to text.” It’s really easy to get garden-pathed into making the wrong decision and I don’ think that Reggie consciously decided that he was going to be a reckless driver and kill two people. That’s really clear that he didn’t intend that. But at the end of the day, the technology and his lack of trying to say, “I’m going to not engage in these behaviors” led him to where…to the crash.

Wyatt: Terryl, can you walk us through the end of the story and then a little bit beyond with Reggie and the families involved?

Warner: The end of the story was basically that Reggie ended up pleading guilty. Now, I remember sitting down, Jackie Furfaro wanted certain things out of the case, and Leila [O’Dell] wanted a few other things out of the case, and the three of use sat together in our upstairs office and sat down and hammered out what they both wanted to see in a plea negotiation. You know, I think we realized…and there was some negative publicity we received about, “This guy should go to prison.” Well one, it didn’t qualify for prison, and two, it really probably didn’t warrant any significant jailtime because this was a very landmark case. Nobody had ever been charged with a negligent homicide for texting and driving. So, we basically let the widows write the plea negotiations. We sat down there, then we went to Don and George and said, “This is what they want.” And Don put it in a plea negotiation, and it ended up that Reggie went well above and beyond the call of duty, and he plead guilty. I remember I was really angry when I got a call from Deanie Wimmer at KSL, who said, “I’ve been told that Reggie can do an interview with me, but he can’t talk about his case.” And I was really mad. I was just like, “Fine.” And I remember he was on pre-trial release and I called Kayleen the pre-trial release officer, and said, “You know, can you just throw him in jail? I’m really frustrated. I’m really mad. And he’s not willing to do the interview, he wants to do an interview but only talk about the dangers of it without talking about what he did.” And finally, Kayleen and I sat down with him and I met him and we kind of rearranged some things. But he ended up pleading guilty, and it was really an interesting thing because…and it ended up probably being for the better that he did not do the interview with Deanie. I think Deanie is a great interviewer, but that’s when Zero Fatalities came. And I was kind of looking around for what else he could do because by the time I got back with Deanie, she had already run a story, and so Zero Fatalities reached out to me and that was really kind of the first where we were trying to get the word out. And Reggie did a video—we all did a video—called “Echo 1085”, and it’s now shown, I believe, pretty much across the country in driver’s ed classes, and we had a film crew videoing him going into jail and being booked into jail. So, the video, “Echo 1085”, that’s literally him being booked into jail. It’s not a re-do, it was the day he went, the film crew was with us for several days. And the case got a lot of attention. I’d like to hope that it helps people know the dangers of texting of driving. Not only that, but looking at the effect that it has had on Jackie and her family and Leila and her family and Reggie and his family. And actually, the other person involved in the story, John Kaiserman, who suffered greatly with the accident. But today, if you look at today, Megan O’Dell, she was just weeks away from getting married when this incident happened. She was the only child of Keith and Leila O’Dell. She has since married, she has a baby, she’s doing well. She and Reggie and Reggie’s wife, Britney, are friends. Reggie and Britney just welcomed a baby last week. He’s married, he has a baby now, he’s a father. Stephanie Furfaro—I feel old because this accident happened the week after Stephanie…two weeks after Stephanie turned seven and Cassidy was approaching turning four, so she was just three years old—Stephanie just graduated high school and Cassidy will be going into her junior year of high school. Jackie is happy, she is in a relationship with a man that she’s been in this relationship for at least a decade. She’s doing really well. Leila’s remarried and happy. And I think it shows that these people, they’ve taken a tragedy, and there was a lot of forgiveness. I know that Reggie has stayed in contact with Jackie and her kids as well.

Wyatt: Let’s break this down just a teeny bit. What was the sentence that Reggie got?

Warner: The original sentence was that he was supposed to speak to some high schools and he was supposed to speak to the Legislature. He was supposed to write an apology letter and watch some videos on their lives.

Wyatt: Was he supposed to go to…did he go to jail?

Warner: And he got 30 days in jail.

Wyatt: OK.

Warner: So, he got 30 days in jail, and then he got…

Wyatt: A fine and some community service.

Warner: Uh-huh. So, he was really supposed to only speak—when we talked about the public speaking—he was only supposed to speak to some high schools in Cache Valley. That was it, and Box Elder County. That was the original sentence.

Wyatt: And so, part of the reason why the sentence was light—because what we’ve been talking about today is now this is a second-degree felony, which is one to fifteen years in prison.

Warner: Right.

Wyatt: This is light because this was the very first case of its kind in the whole country.

Warner: Right.

Wyatt: And there was this idea that, “Well, people need to be on notice. So, the first time it happens, we’re going to be a little bit lighter” I guess. Is that what happened? Is that the idea?

Warner: I think we weren’t sure what to do with the sentence because truly what we were looking at was because this was such a unique case and it was such a new concept, putting him in jail and giving him a fine really wasn’t what the widows wanted. Jackie and Leila did not…I mean, they wanted that, but they didn’t. They wanted more to it, and this was a time where George and Don and I…

Wyatt: “George and Don and I,” those are the two prosecutors?

Warner: So, George Daines was our county attorney at the time, Don Linton was the prosecutor, and Tony Baird was involved as well, our chief deputy. But they…we wanted something a little more and a little different out of this, and so the plea negotiation was crafted that way so that the victims could have their say in this whole process. It just didn’t feel right to put him in jail. It wasn’t going to do us any good to put him in jail and a fine only.

Wyatt: And so, the amount of community service, going out and talking to high school students or the Legislature, in the end, how far did he exceed what he was required to do?

Warner: So, I believe the original sentence was 100 hours between the schools and the Legislature. He testified at the Legislature and then he did speak at schools. In fact, my daughter Jamie was maybe 14 at the time and Taylor was 12, and Reggie and I are like, “Oh, we’ve got to do a presentation. We don’t even know what to do.” So, Jamie and Taylor at 12 and 14 put together the very first presentation we used at schools. But then, he got connected to Zero Fatalities through this “Echo 1085” video and then started doing a lot of presentations. And so, he has vastly exceeded the 100 hours he was originally required to do.

Wyatt: By twice? Three times? Four times?

Warner: Oh, I would say thousands of ours on input now.

Wyatt: More than ten times.

Warner: Oh, yeah.

Strayer: Easily, yeah.

Warner: He speaks to the NBA, he speaks to the NFL…I’m ticked he doesn’t take me with him. [All laugh] He speaks at difference conferences, he speaks at national conference and actually has…I think Zero Fatalities has actually done a professional presentation for him. He speaks at schools, he speaks all over. He’s always gone. He is always speaking somewhere.

Wyatt: Just constantly trying to help protect somebody from going through what he had to go through.

Warner: Yes.

Wyatt: And I’m interested in what you’ve described about the relationship between Reggie and the widows of the two men that he killed. And part of what’s interesting to me about that is you’ve got years and years of experience in the criminal system and it seems that the relationship that has developed between those three far exceeds what is normal?

Warner: Oh yes, yes. I remember when we went to go to Oprah and we were talking to one of the producers and they were going to arrange for us to be in different hotels and I thought that was really odd, so Jackie and I and Megan were in one hotel and Reggie and his mom were in a different hotel. And so, we all got together that night later and kind of thought that was weird that we were in different hotels, and then I remembered being in the filming studio and we were in one area and Reggie and his mom were in a different area. And I remember Reggie coming to our green room and the security guy stopping Reggie, and then later, we’re like, “Oh no, he can come into our room.” And the producer said something about, “This is really odd. We thought we would have kept you all completely separate.” No, we all hung out together in Chicago. And so, it is a really unique case in that once Reggie said he was sorry, and once he started really showing that he was really remorseful—because in the beginning when you think about it, through the court case and in that initial investigation, it was almost a year before we filed the criminal charges—it…there wasn’t a lot of…we didn’t think there was a lot of remorse. It didn’t feel like it was a lot of remorse, but it turns out he was very, very quiet. He had been instructed not to say anything, and I remember later talking to him about that, you know, there are ways you can say, “My thoughts and prayers are with you” or something where you don’t have to acknowledge guilt but he had been told by legal counsel to not acknowledge anything, to not say anything, and I think it really hurt him. And I think it also hurt him emotionally. I think it hurt him legally and I think it hurt him emotionally to…

Wyatt: To go that long.

Warner: Yeah. It was like two years before they heard an apology.

Wyatt: What I get out of the book and from talking with you about these families that are so forgiving and understanding and helpful is that they fact that they all came together, sincerely, genuinely, apologetically, forgivingly, helped all of them recover dramatically more than every would have happened.

Warner: Mhmm.

Wyatt: Some people go to the grave angry about these things. All three of them have a better life because of…

Warner: They do. You and I learned, Scott, through the Tricia Autry Case, that when people hold, I mean that was my first really big devastating case where we learned from JoAnn about forgiveness. You and I and JoAnn had discussions about forgiveness and…

Wyatt: So, we’re talking…Terryl is talking about another case.  

Warner: Yes, sorry.

Wyatt: That’s an unrelated case, but the point is, is that what we learn through these things. And every aspect of life, including criminal cases or slight offenses, the quicker we forgive, the quicker we heal.

Warner: Right. And I remember when Megan reached out and said, “I would like to meet him.” And I called and said, “Would you like to meet her?” And “Yes, I’d be happy to meet her.” And they met and became…I mean, they’re friends. And I think that that is such an example because we have such a lack of tolerance and it seems like forgiveness in criminal cases. And I think that forgiveness is a very personal thing, but I have seen these people be able to move on and be happy in light of a tragedy. They’ve been able to move on, they’re doing well, and I…Megan, she named her baby Keith, after her father, that she had just a few months ago, and it’s OK. They’re doing fine. And of course, they miss their loved ones, but…

Wyatt: There’s two really big messages in this book. And the one is, is how distractions are…two great messages for today. And one is, Dr. Strayer, how distractions can dramatically change our attention and our lives and have all these implications, and then Terryl, on the other side, this message of how divided we are as a society and struggle in these tribal kind of things. “I’m a victim and you’re a perpetrator” or “I’m a democrat and you’re a republican” or “I’m a this and you’re a that.”

Warner: Right.

Wyatt: And that’s a wonderful message from this book, too, about how we need to come together despite our differences. There’s nobody that was happy about what Reggie did, but they found a way to forgive and build a life of friendship with him, which caused them all to have a better life. It reminds me of the old proverb, “Before you go seeking revenge, dig two graves.” Because hate and the lack of forgiveness probably hurts both…maybe the person who refuses to forgive even more.

Warner: Right.

Wyatt: Dr. Strayer, we’re getting right towards the end here, but I think there’s a lesson for us in all aspects of our lives that go beyond texting and driving, and that is if we’re on our phones, glancing at Facebook or texting while we’re in a classroom, or if we’re in somebody’s living room talking with family or friends and half the group is texting something out, that seems to be drawing our attention away from what we’re supposed to be doing building relationships with friends or paying attention in class or whatever it might be. This distraction is like going drunk with friends. [Laughs] Not just in the car.

Strayer: I think that it’s hard to fail. You need to really appreciate, I’d say, the potential for that phone to interfere with a good, quality life. So, what happen is, it interferes with interpersonal communication, it interferes with being able to drive, to do well in your classes, to even just kind of have intimacy with your family and friends. There’s more and more concern that—especially the social media features where you phone rings and you have to answer right away—may trigger addiction in some of us. Behavioral addiction where you can’t not look at the phone and that you see that it kind of becomes…there are even apps that anyone can download that will actually tell you how often you use your phone. But just as a statistic to kind of put things in perspective, the average American spends 10 hours in front of a screen every day. That is staggering. I can’t think of very many other things we do for that period of time. And so, we’ve got a technology that is potentially addictive, and it interferes with all aspects of life. And in the case of driving, there are consequences in terms of crashes, but there are also consequences in terms of how…your quality of life, how well you do in school, and everything else. It’s a very, very powerful medium that you should be very careful about in terms of regulating your own behavior.

Wyatt: This book is a couple of years old and one of the questions posed in it is, “Can behaviors be addictive, or just substances?” Do we know more about that today?

Strayer: Yeah. I mean there’s no question. Even at the time, we knew there were things like behavioral addiction for gambling and now you see that it’s more and more evident that we can become addicted to our phones. There are…the American Psychological Association has categories for gaming addiction and other kinds of digital addictions that are associated with computers, games, and your phone. So, it’s what we know and it’s kind of carried out in the book that the phone, when your phone rings, it triggers the little reward circuits in your brain giving you a little dose of dopamine and that’s the same drug that is working with cocaine. It’s a very powerful reward system and it’s absolutely the case that we can become far too connected to that phone and at the risk of basically losing out on all kinds of dimensions of life.

Wyatt: So, if we’re addicted or behave like an addiction, perhaps, when we’re driving, we should not have the phone within sight, but rather, in the back seat. Perhaps when we’re with friends playing games or talking, we should get it out of sight so that we can’t have that constant tug to look at it. It pulls us away.

Meredith: Yeah. We have…you know, we’ve been talking about how Reggie Shaw could have been anybody’s son or brother. We’re in higher education, you and I, and so we have that sort of paternal relationship with all of the students that come here. We feel a great sense of responsibility for their care and safety, and Reggie could be any one of our students certainly as well. And any one of us talking here. But I wonder, Dr. Strayer, if the message isn’t, in short, “Put down your phone a little.” [Laughs] “Arrange to put your phone down.”

Strayer: I think that it’s actually easy to have it slip into every aspect of your behavior. The very, very first thing you do when you wake up in the morning, the very, very last thing you do when you go to sleep, and almost every activity in-between is kind of bombarded by the phone. You need to kind of basically in your own life take responsibility for, “I’m going to be not distracted. I’m going to let the phone be in an off position.” Maybe you need to put it in your glovebox. Maybe you need to put it in your briefcase or backpack. Because, in terms of the educational component, it’s clear that the person bringing out their laptop or their phone and paying attention to that during lectures does poorly, and in many cases, they created a cloud of distraction so that not only are they distracted and have poorer grades, but everyone else sitting around them also does less well in their coursework. Because if someone pulls up dancing cats or something like that in a YouTube video, that may be more compelling than whatever else is going on in class, and then they’re going to miss really critical details. It’s very easy to kind of fall into this camp, and you need to really kind of set your own internal policies about, “I’m not going to do it in these circumstances. I’m not going to do it on a date or when I go out to dinner” or something like that.

Wyatt: We have a student book club that’s my book club for students and we read a few books every semester, it’s just a voluntary thing, and we read this book as a group. And the students that read the book and then we discussed it reported back to me later that they changed their behavior because of the book. That they did things to get rid of the phone. And I was so happy with that because it didn’t just make them safer, it made the happier. And I think that we tend to focus on millennials unfairly a bit. When my cabinet and I here at the university were talking about this one day, it because apparent to us that it wasn’t millennials, it was all of us.

Strayer: Mhmm.

Wyatt: Because we’ll show up to a cabinet meeting or some other meeting and everybody pulls out their phones while they’re waiting for the meeting to start and then if the topic is a little bit less interesting, somebody will just kind of glance at it to quickly answer an email. And the consequence of that is that we don’t get to know each other, we don’t have those conversations, we’re not paying attention to the subject, that if things start to drag and half of the group kind of zones out by doing quick emails, then we’re not holding each other accountable and we’re becoming less productive as a group and it becomes a meeting of one or two depending on who’s on and who’s off. [Laughs]

Warner: Right.

Strayer: Well one of the things I will say is just that kind of everything you said is true. And I think especially to kind of try to link it back to Reggie, he’s not some unusual person. The kinds of problems he ended up getting into with texting and driving, they’re basically everybody’s problems. He ended up in a really tragic accident as a consequence of it, but there’s…he’s a typical, high school, college age student who can easily be in that same situation. So, I really caution people and say, “Don’t look at say, ‘Look what happened to him.’ Think, “That could have easily been me.’” And that’s I think really the message that Reggie says is this could be pretty much anybody. You don’t realize how distracting and how much this technology is and to what extent it kind of…well, in his case in particular, really have a devastating consequence for probably the rest of his life.

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University. We’ve been delighted to have as guests in-studio joining us by phone today Terryl Warner and Dr. David Strayer. Thanks so much for listening, we’ll be back again soon. Bye bye.