Most drivers have experienced traffic congestions due to car accidents. In many cases, these congestions are not caused by police and ambulances arriving at the scene, as we might expect, but rather by other drivers whose curiosity slows down the traffic.
This form of distracted driving is called rubbernecking.
What Is Rubbernecking?
Rubbernecking, also known as "accident gawking," occurs when the driver cranes the neck to get a better view of an accident on the side of the road. Attention-grabbing bright lights of emergency vehicles can easily make scenes distracting for drivers.
The worse the accident on the side of the road, the easier it is for a driver to lose concentration and harder to stop staring.
Where Does "Rubbernecking" Come From?
The term rubbernecking was coined in the 1890s to describe the wagons, automobiles, and buses used in tours around American cities. At one point it also referred to the act of eavesdropping until it eventually got the meaning we use today—the act of slowing down to look at a car accident.
Examples of Rubbernecking While Driving
You can see the effects of rubbernecking in this video, posted on Reddit. When an accident occurs on one side of the highway, all of the cars driving on the opposite side of the highway slow down just to catch a glimpse of the accident.
Why Do People Rubberneck?
The interest in accidents and tragic events in general is considered as being natural. It is rooted in profoundly human instincts and feelings of curiosity, shock, and empathy.
Empathy gives us the possibility to identify with someone else's suffering. When we witness a tragic scene, we immediately put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. We imagine dealing with the circumstances the victims are in, at the same time convincing ourselves that it would not be possible to end up in a similar situation. In a way, we scrutinize dangers that could threaten our own survival.
Observing a road accident is an intense emotional exercise that triggers the flight-or-fight response, a physiological reaction that occurs when experiencing what we perceive to be a harmful event, without any negative consequences on ourselves.
Rubberneck is often associated with morbid curiosity, that is, a compelling need to see something unpleasant, dangerous, or tragic. It is similar to being attracted to the news about disasters, watching funny falls on YouTube, violent movies, and playing aggressive video games, for instance.
Carl Jung, the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology, believed that human beings enjoy witnessing violence. He maintained that this is a way to entertain our most destructive impulses without actually harming ourselves or others in the process.
Cognitive psychology explains rubbernecking through the phenomenon known as attentional blink. The attentional blink occurs when we rapidly shift our attention from one thing to another. It limits our ability to process several events at the same time.
When we spot a road accident while driving, our attention becomes briefly focused on the scene. It is taken away from the traffic for a couple of seconds, thus increasing the chances of causing another accident.
Dangers of Rubbernecking
Rubbernecking in order to get a better look at the aftermath of a collision doesn’t only endanger drivers but also road-workers and emergency medical services responding to an accident.
Furthermore, rubbernecking is among the leading causes of traffic jams. Distractions such as road accidents cause drivers to suddenly start moving at a slower speed, often without realizing that they are slowing down, an action that increases the risk of rear-end accidents.
Rubbernecking is a frequent cause of car accidents. Studies show that taking eyes off the road for only two seconds doubles the risk of getting into an accident. And the risk of distractions on the road often persists for about half a minute after the distraction took place. While 25 percent of all car accidents are the result of distracted driving, an estimated 10 to 16 percent of all car accidents are directly caused by rubbernecking.
It is important to remember that rubbernecking is legally considered a negligent act. This means that drivers who engage in rubbernecking are held liable if they get into an accident.
How to Prevent Rubbernecking?
Rubbernecking is a type of distraction equivalent of other dangerous driving habits, such as talking on the phone or texting while driving.
Fortunately, there are a few ways to help reduce the number of rubbernecking accidents.
Keep your eyes on the road
Staring at a crash site instead of the road ahead can easily lead to a collision. This is especially true when several drivers are slowing down at the same time. That’s why it is important to always keep eyes on the road ahead and resist the urge to rubberneck.
Drivers who don’t give the road in front of them their full and undivided attention, are not only putting themselves at risk but they are endangering their passengers and other drivers.
If your GPS or smartphone indicates that there is a car accident ahead, slow down slightly and remain extra vigilant. Do your best to avoid being distracted by the scene, and exhibit extra caution near a recent crash by slowly increasing your following distance from the vehicle in front of you.
Never follow an ambulance or fire truck to a crash site. You should only stop your vehicle in case you are a witness or can offer help.
Many countries, including the USA, UK, and Australia, have in the past years adopted the use of incident screens at road accident sites. Several companies produce large screens that can easily be installed to surround the area around an accident. If drivers can’t see the crash scene, they have no reason to slow down or stop and put themselves and others in danger.
While they are not usable in all situations and weather conditions, incident screens are shown to heavily reduce subsequent accidents due to rubbernecking and provide a safer environment both for drivers, first responders, and accident victims.