This “disconnect” between information and behavior became one of the subjects of Richtel’s first story, and it may have provided a frame through which readers could relate the news to their own experience. But that’s only one explanation for its resonance. Richtel—who insists that the Times’s influence on this issue should not be overstated—attributes it, in part, to good timing. “I think we happened to give voice to something that’s been tickling people’s brains,” he says. “I think we were ahead of the curve by about six millimeters.”

His colleagues offer other theories. Business editor Larry Ingrassia, Bryant’s boss, thinks the emotional complexity of the situation plays a role. “Even the culprits are victims,” he says. Consider the twenty-year-old, featured in the first story, who killed another driver while talking on his cell phone and now lives with the guilt. “You sympathize with that character,” Ingrassia says. “That’s somebody’s kid.”

Kramon, who has offered key input as the series has unfolded, has another take. “This story really makes people mad,” he says. “It is a story to react strongly to, because there is such an obvious solution.”

Indeed, the data reported in the stories point to the conclusion that distracted driving is, if anything, even more of a hazard than one might expect, and that the obvious solution would be to discourage it. The Times journalists who have worked on the series say, unsurprisingly, that it has made them more cognizant of their own behavior. (“I listen to a lot more sports radio,” says Richtel.) And they shared fears that a spouse or child might be injured in an accident caused by texting or talking behind the wheel. But as a group, they adhered to the standard journalistic claim that that their aim was to foster a debate, not push for a particular solution. “We didn’t have an agenda,” Richtel said repeatedly. “We’re not editorial writers,” said Bryant. “We don’t want to write prescriptions,” said Ingrassia. “Advocacy is for the edit page.”

And yet, some of the journalists’ other comments seem to acknowledge, if in a roundabout way, that they’d like to see results from the series. “I like to think that if you bring an issue up, and you raise it in the right way, people take it seriously and they start doing the right thing,” Ingrassia says. Adds Bryant: “You can debate a lot of things—I don’t think people can really debate how dangerous texting while driving is, or talking on the cell phone.” Kramon is most straightforward on this score. Wide acceptance of seat belts took decades, he notes, despite the evidence that they saved lives. “We hope these stories will inspire Americans to move faster against distracted driving.”

However the goals behind it are articulated, the series has apparently connected with an audience. It has become, in the process, almost self-perpetuating, as readers offer story ideas and institutions respond to the information the Times has publicized. “What has happened, and this is really a rush as a reporter, is that stories are starting to unfold in front of us,” Richtel says. “I feel a little bit swept up in it as well, in the respect that this story has taken on a life of its own.” This is the first time in his career he’s been in a situation like this, he says, and it’s prompted some reflection about the overall role of a journalist. “It’s humbling, because it really reinforces your desire to do right by your readership when you know people are playing such close attention…. Right now, I feel like I am as much in the center of a conversation as I’ve ever been, and I want to be responsible in that role.”

Greg Marx is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.