Writing about “Distracted Driving” Without Mentioning ADHD?

The New York Times Silicon Valley technology reporter Matt Richtel won a Pulitzer Prize for his series “Driving While Distracted” without ever mentioning ADHD.  How does that happen?

I congratulate him on the Putlizer. Yet, for or any science-based reporter who dips the tiniest toe into the research, the evidence is clear: ADHD-related driving impairments are real and documented many times over.  These are life-threatening impairments.

A bit of background: I had written to Richtel numerous times over the years explaining the substantial research in this area, as highlighted in my book chapter on the topic:  “Driving to Destruction.”  (Yes, many people with ADHD drive very well;  when it comes to research, though, we’re talking significant trends within a group, not individuals.)

Because he was based here in the SF Bay Area, I also invited him to sit in on our Silicon Valley Adult ADHD Salon in Palo Alto. That way, he could hear first-hand, from many different adults, how ADHD symptoms had threatened their driving safety.   No response—to telephone or e-mail.

It beggars belief: How could anyone who’s written such a series never mention ADHD, even now as he makes the PBS-radio rounds promoting his new book?  I consider that as reckless as distracted driving itself. As a reporter, he has withheld from the public information that could  not only reduce traffic accidents but also even save lives.

(Yes, last year I gave his series an ADHD Roller Coaster Salute when posting notice of it here, for bringing attention to the dangers of distracted driving, but I had hoped by now that he’d at least give ADHD a nod.)

Now I am listening to Richtel talk about his new book, on the brain and technology, with Terry Gross on Fresh Air. Waiting. Waiting. Nope. No mention.

Dopamine, John Ratey, MD—but No ADHD?

I read his story in The New York Times today— “Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Dopamine”. Good grief!  He even quotes ADHD Expert Dr. John Ratey but not on ADHD!  How can you write a story about digital devices and dopamine and not include a sentence on ADHD? Especially when you have interviewed Dr. Ratey?

It’s true, ADHD is not the sole cause of “driving while distracted” or our culture’s increasingly problematic relationship with all things electronic (the subject of his book).

Moreover, it’s not breaking news that the dopamine flood that comes from overusing electronic gadgets isn’t good for anyone’s brain, ADHD or not. (The scientific thinking is, simply put, this flood down-regulates dopamine receptors and sets the pattern for addiction. See, in the context of orgasmic sex perhaps intensifying ADHD symptoms, this post: ADHD and Sex: Post-Orgasm Irritability, Jerkdom.)

But to pretend that all brains are created equally. To ignore the fact that a signification percentage of the population he is reporting on —the ones with ADHD, most notably—are far more vulnerable to technology’s harmful effects?  And, of in all places here in Silicon Valley, aka ADHD Central?

A Conspicuous Lack of ADHD In His Reporting

It all reminds me of the time that the poet Robert Lowell, seated beside me at a dinner given by a college chancellor, turned to me and whispered, “There’s a conspicuous lack of alcohol at the chancellor’s home tonight.”

That’s it exactly: I see a conspicuous lack of ADHD in these stories.

Why exactly does Richtel refuse to ever mention ADHD when it is entirely appropriate?

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Living in Silicon  Valley since 1996, I think I can guess. That is, he is relying solely on medical experts at our two local medical schools: the University of California, San Francisco and Stanford University. Each takes turn outdoing the other in its shocking paucity of ADHD expertise. It’s not paranoia to say that it often seems deliberate, even territorial, given each university’s specialties that bring in big grants (e.g. bipolar disorder, sleep disorders in the case of Stanford). Yes, in fact, Richtel plentifully cites Stanford research.

Or, was this oversight due to editorial oversight at The New York Times? For almost a decade, the paper fired one anti-psychiatry salvo after another, most especially at ADHD. (See Talking Back to The New York Times ADHD Myth-Mongering and The New York Times Unnatural Opinions on ADHD

Whatever the reason for the failure to make a mention of ADHD throughout this series of articles, I find it irresponsible and blinkered reporting.  Therefore, it deserves a place in the ADHD Roller Coaster Hall of Shame. distracted driving ADHD

What do you think?  I welcome your opinion.



5 thoughts on “Writing about “Distracted Driving” Without Mentioning ADHD?”

  1. I’m with Jeff, wondering if Richtel himself has ADHD. I also wonder about how it would come across if he did include it. Are we all just huge accidents waiting to happen, oh oh especially us women! Should our drivers’ licenses be confiscated immediately? Or do some of us have symptoms that have little impact on driving or have them well controlled enough that we are just fine on the road using a few coping strategies? It makes driving more challenging for sure but I have to wonder about my vision. I’m not completely red-green colorblind but I’m not exactly color-normal. Red doesn’t particularly stand out to me against any background any more than most colors. That stop sign may be the only thing I can see that’s red but it’s just another object. Orange would better capture my attention. One of my parents is actually colorblind. And there was an area where I grew up where red being above green was culturally offensive to whatever group lived there, so the traffic lights were hung upside down. Tell me THAT’S not an accident waiting to happen! Well it must’ve happened, a lot, because now those lights are horizontal. So at least people who are colorblind and learned top is stop and bottom is go are now confused if they don’t know the area and will likely slow down…

    Should the people who are colorblind be driving? It’s not their fault they were born that way and can’t tell a traffic light is hung upside down (a stupid decision in general on the part of DOT in any case) but just as the colorblind have learned position for traffic lights, we too have coping skills we can learn. We didn’t ask for ADHD. We can be responsible drivers if we are aware of our deficits. But undiagnosed ADHD is like someone who is colorblind, passing through that neighborhood with the upside down traffic lights for the first time… They can’t possibly know. Not back then anyway when there weren’t subtle differences in color between the lights if there were two or more or little flashing things in the red I sometimes see. To them, all they knew was the bottom one was lit. That means go. Turning those lights sideways let them know the lights weren’t normal. It’s like getting diagnosed and becoming aware of your limitations so you can develop coping strategies. You know top and bottom have no meaning now. You can adjust.

    But WE have ADHD. From someone who has remained silent so long, would we be treated fairly and the message received in a fair manner by readers? Or would we be vilified, either by Richtel himself or the preconceived notions of his readers? His silence on the matter is like when someone walks up to you and you don’t know her name and at best have vague memories of meeting this person but she knows you! You’re embarrassed and don’t say anything but the conversation is interesting and hours later you still can’t remember this person’s name or where you met her. You thought the conversation would just be a quick hello but now hours later, your friend joins. Do you admit you can’t remember her name and ask? It’s awkward at that point. Or do you just keep dodging the issue and at best give a sketchy introduction for the guy who just joined you, hoping the other person will introduce herself when you’ve only given his name instead of both?

    It seems a little late for Richtel to ask us our name at this party and it’s like he should’ve done that much sooner. At this point, it may be better that he remain silent on this issue because even something positive…. I don’t know, people watch cable news channels to reinforce their own beliefs and haterz will be haterz, right? Even if he wrote something fair, it seems too late for it to be interpreted that way.

    So welcome, Matt. Maybe at the next party you’ll admit you don’t know someone’s name and tactfully ask when you first say hi? Cuz we know you but you never introduced us to your friends and now it would be really awkward and likely come across wrong after all this time…

    1. Hi Danielle,

      I love your stories. 🙂

      You make an excellent point: Does knowing that SOME of these behaviors are ADHD-related carry the potential to create more stigma, to scapegoat people with ADHD as the only people who creates these hazards on the road?

      Word has it that Canada considered, at one point, making ADHD testing mandatory before having a driver’s license, or was it that people diagnosed with ADHD had to show it was treated effectively before being granted a driver’s license? I’m not sure. But either way, in the end, they scotched the idea, for fear that it would only drive people with ADHD underground.

      In my opinion, ADHD is “extreme human syndrome,” and we are ALL vulnerable to distractions on the road. Especially today, with faster-than-ever cars, faster average speeds on the highways and byways, more aggressive people, and all manner of electronic devices to capture our attention. So on some level, I see some wisdom in Richtel avoiding any mention of ADHD as central to the problems he writes about.


  2. g,
    Another glaring example of an uncanny oversight of the ‘ADHD obvious.’

    Perhaps it’s because ADHD is misunderstood, – so under appreciated following the observation the academicians themselves don’t get it – leaving those of us that work with ADHD all the time to appear as outliers?

    My question to all of these folks: Just where is the science anyway?

    Will be looking to see the refs and research on texting and dopamine – seems like considerable hype at this point – will someone please measure my dopamine when I am fly fishing for stripers? Perhaps I’m addicted?

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