It Just Might Work: Rubbernecking screens


Last weekend I called my girlfriend while she was on her way up to Pennsylvania, and she told me the ride had been smooth aside from 20 minutes into her trip, when she was halted by an accident outside of Winston-Salem. No surprise: Business 40 is notorious for wrecks. But she also mentioned a possible additional cause for the delay: rubbernecking.

Rubbernecking — the act of slowing down to check out traffic accidents and the like — is something I abhor. It is one of my biggest driving pet peeves, alongside cruising at the speed limit in the fast lane.

For one, rubbernecking lengthens delays already caused by an accident, inspiring a specific term for the traffic jams it creates: gapers’ blocks. But it’s not just annoying; it also causes additional accidents. A 2014 study published by the Journal of Transportation Technologies estimated that 10 percent of all accidents are caused by rubbernecking.

The study concluded that higher concrete barriers along freeway medians would reduce the occurrence of gawking at other peoples’ misfortune. Makes sense — physically block drivers’ views of any possible tragedy in the opposite lanes. Granted, constructing higher barriers would prove costly.

Some countries have experimented with accident screens, or portable barriers shielding the site of an accident from inquiring eyes. The United Kingdom’s Highways Agency has reported remarkable success in reducing the number of wrecks and delays due to distracted driving. However, the screens take up to 20 minutes to set up, and despite holes near the top of the screens, they can also become vulnerable to wind. An enterprising mind might find a way to more effectively stabilize screen bases.

There’s an obvious fix — just keep driving normally — but we can’t rely on all people to change their behavior. People do dumb things on the road, like text and fix their hair, no matter how dangerous these acts may be. The inability to enforce such a radical measure leads us to no better solution than to shield accidents from public spectating.

After all, I shouldn’t cast stones; I’ve checked out highway accidents in my life, but at a reasonable speed. Blame morbid curiosity.

We humans are an inquisitive species. We investigate everything. This curiosity has led us to consider what makes the apple fall from the tree, whether or not there exists a higher power running this seemingly random universe, whether life itself holds any meaning.

But often, we should mind our own damn business.