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What Is Rubbernecking?


The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as, “to look about or stare with exaggerated curiosity.” Encyclopedia Britannica gets slightly more specific with “to look around or stare with great curiosity, especially to slow down while you are driving in order to stare at something (such as an accident).” The word itself dates back to the 1800s when tourists, particularly those peering out the windows on sightseeing tours, were commonly referred to as rubbernecks.

However you define it, rubbernecking is an extremely dangerous driving behavior, contributing to the thousands of traffic fatalities caused by distracted driving. Taking your eyes off the road for even a moment increases the likelihood of a crash. A study published in the Journal of Transportation Technologies found that about 10% of motor vehicle crashes are caused by rubbernecking, which also resulted in an average delay of 107 vehicle-hours (the culminative amount of time lost by all motorists traveling past the site).

Knowing all this begs the two-pronged question: Why do so many drivers rubberneck and what can be done to stop it?

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Why Do We Rubberneck?

There are a number of theories around what causes drivers to engage in the dangerous practice of rubbernecking. The aforementioned study stated that rubbernecking is simply a natural human response to visual “eye candy.”

Other experts, however, believe it is not merely morbid curiosity that makes us stare, but an innate survival mechanism. “Witnessing violence and destruction … playing out in front of us in real time, gives us the opportunity to confront our fears of death, pain, despair, degradation and annihilation while still feeling some level of safety,” psychiatrist Dr. David Henderson told NBC News. “We watch because we are allowed to ask ourselves ultimate questions with an intensity of emotion that is uncoupled from the true reality of the disaster: ‘If I was in that situation, what would I do? How would I respond? Would I be the hero or the villain? Could I endure the pain? Would I have the strength to recover?’ We play out the different scenarios in our head because it helps us to reconcile that which is uncontrollable with our need to remain in control.”

This theory is aided by studies proving adults’ negativity bias. This refers to the tendency to devout more attention and learn more from negative information than positive information.

Clinical psychologist Matthew Goldfine, Ph.D. agrees that humans’ survivalist nature contributes to our rubbernecking tendency. He also points out another psychological factor. “Sometimes, the physiological reaction we have to being scared is very similar to being excited,” Goldfine told Women’s Health. “You can feel an adrenaline rush without any negative effect.”

How to Prevent Rubbernecking

Now that we’ve discussed some of the possible causes of rubbernecking, let’s look at some possible solutions.

It’s unlikely that thousands of years of human behavior is going to change overnight. (Read: we can’t simply flip a switch and get drivers to stop rubbernecking.) What we can do is eliminate their opportunity to rubberneck.

One of the most practical and effective strategies proven to reduce the occurrence of rubbernecking is the use of barriers. Such barriers usually take the form of collapsible screens that block the scene from passing motorists. Research by the University of Central Florida proved barriers to be a highly effective countermeasure to rubbernecking. In the study, 54 students equipped with eye-tracking goggles drove past a crash site that was blocked by either a full barrier, partial barrier or no barrier at all. When the scene was partially or fully visible, drivers rubbernecked for an average of 12 seconds. When the scene was completely obscured, however, drivers took their eyes off the road for just 4 seconds.

Other countries have already tested barriers in real-life situations with successful results. They may not be a perfect solution (they may not cover the entire crash scene, can be difficult to construct in bad weather). They could, however, go a long way in slowing down this dangerous trend.

What are your thoughts on rubbernecking? Let us know in the comments below?


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