How to Stop Rubbernecking

Freeway traffic comes to a halt after an accident, and if cars are getting backed up, it can take a while to get them all up and moving again at a normal speed.


After sitting in a car for 13 minutes, creeping forward inch by inch, you'd think that drivers would be deadset on getting going as soon as possible. But they aren't. More than half of drivers look over, trying to get a look at crash evidence at the side of the road. Drivers treat this experience as if they were waiting in line at Six Flags to get into the shark experience: They waited in line and now they want a show.

It reminds me of a situation which I see at the post office over my lunch hour. Two or three postal agents will attempt to service an impatient line of customers. The people in line grouse and complain about the speed of the transactions ahead. Yet, when they themselves are in front of an agent, they dawdle and yap and shoot the breeze with the agent, weighing the value of 21¢ Delivery Assurance vs. 44¢ Signed Confirmation as if time did not exist.

Pictured: Rubbernecking

When something is visible
Even with the wrecked cars safely out of the traffic lane, the glut of stopped cars does not start flowing freely again. A virtual bottleneck is maintained because cars at the front edge of the jam do not accelerate as quickly as they could. The urge to accelerate out of the cluster is momentarily overridden with the urge to get a look at what caused the holdup in the first place: A Dodge Magnum with a crinkle-cut front hood.



Pictured: Not Rubbernecking

When nothing is visible
When there is nothing visible on the side of the road, drivers jump at the chance to accelerate out of the cluster. The front edge of the traffic jam moves backward. Fewer and fewer cars are locked in the jam until it breaks up completely.

According to a 2003 study of traffic accidents conducted by the Virginia DMV and VCU, rubbernecking is responsible for 16% of all distraction-related accidents.


Old Ideas:
Desensitize drivers to the sight of disabled cars on the side of the road.
Construct and erect a temporary curtain shielding the view from passing cars. (
Remind drivers that there are an infinite number of breathtaking accident photos on the internet.




Latest Idea:
Enlist drivers to break up the rubbernecker's bottleneck.
Slow down before the crash scene, creating a new front to the traffic jam, out of view of the crash.



Everyone in a traffic jam doesn't speed up simultaneously. The drivers who make up the front edge have to be paying attention and be willing to speed off and get back to a normal driving speed. If they hesitate, the traffic jam has a harder time breaking itself up.

Here is the plan:
Whenever you are stuck in a crash-related traffic jam, use a Special Exit Strategy, not because it will help you, but because it will help to break up the traffic jam for everyone behind you.

The Special Exit Strategy:

As you approach the end of the jam, but still have 7-8 cars in front of you, slow down. Allow a large gap to open up in front of your car. This can seem like it takes forever, but it will probably only take a minute or two.

The cars ahead of you should be reaching the end of the jam and driving away unimpeded.

When you see the last car reach the edge of the jam, step on the gas and speed up, driving clear out of the jam without hesitating.


What difference would this make? The guy behind you, if he is paying attention to your car, will notice that you've taken off, and that he is now free to bust out of the jam as well. More importantly, he is getting this opportunity BEFORE he has reached the accident scene. He has no reason to keep going slow, because he can't see the accident anyway. With luck, he will follow your lead and accelerate out of the jam. People behind him will also get the chance to leave, and with no good view of the accident, will likely speed up and drive away as well.

If the front of the jam can be pushed back 200 feet, a roadside object will have a much smalleer influence on the behavior of people who drive by.

After all, if you are accellerating or traveling at top speed, you are much less likely to slow down or stop to take a look at some broken down Volvo being fixed by a guy on a ten speed.



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July 31 , 2009.

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