A Solution to Car Accident Rubbernecking: Setting Screens

A few posts ago I wrote a piece about traffic incidents —some of them quite bizarre—that can cause road congestion. Many of these are due to reasonable or at least understandable causes; for example, we need to have road construction, although here in L.A. we wish we didn’t (more about our “Carmageddon” when the results come in.)

Photo: tedkerwin

But perhaps the most galling and unnecessary source of incident-related congestion is “rubbernecking.” As we all know, terrific jams can be caused even when the wreck(s) is moved out of the traffic lanes, as passing drivers gape at the carnage. It’s been quite a long time since we shared a common ancestor with the vulture, but evidently an evolutionary tie is still there.

Rubbernecking is one of the more interesting cases of moral whipsawing I can think of. All the time we sit in the jam we curse the drivers in front of us for their blood lust. But when it’s our turn at the front of the line… well, just a quick peek. Even if the sight of twisted metal doesn’t thrill you, curiosity about what on earth just caused you to waste 45 minutes is often just too powerful to resist. Besides, we waited our turn and it’s only fair that we senselessly victimize others the way we were just victimized ourselves. Karma, I guess.

The pinnacle of transportation-related annoyance may be that not only does rubbernecking take place along the route where the accident happens, but it can even cause severe jams in the lanes going the opposite direction. So a few years ago I had what I thought was a bright idea: how about setting up screens at accident sites to hide the scene and prevent gaping?

Finally, somebody is trying out this idea in practice. The Highways Agency in the U.K. has tested such screens. (For more see this, this, this, and this, which leads you to several other links.) The bottom line is that the screens are not perfect; for example, the barriers to which the screens have to be attached vary in size, which creates problems; the screens are vulnerable to wind; the decision about whether to deploy them must be made very rapidly; they have to be able to be set up quickly and safely, etc. Thus they are not suitable for all accident sites. However, as the links above indicate, test results have shown they are effective.

As a result, the screens were deployed for operational use in September 2010. The earliest reports have shown they indeed work; one police official marveled:

“The screens used to protect the scene worked extremely well; what a transformation in the traffic flow for the northbound traffic once they were up.”

However, I have had trouble finding up-to-the-minute data on their performance. Do any of you have more recent info? I’d particularly love to hear from my readers in the U.K. who may themselves have experienced the screens in action.

Hopefully these big screens will work, and people will stick to getting their mayhem and destruction from the small screens in their living rooms.

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  1. robyn ann goldstein says:

    yes, a roadmap is what is needed for all to follow and that is what I am constructing right now. Never thought about it that way before. As the French would say, “But of course~…”

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  2. Clifton Griffin says:

    I thought of just such a solution on a recent trip.

    But it occurred to me that the screens might become so iconically representative of accidents that people would actually slow down to try to see through the screen, assuming it cannot ever be 100% effective in obscuring the scene.

    I’m glad to see they are testing this…I suspect the cost in lost productivity, fuel, and secondary accidents is enormous.


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  3. Enter your name says:

    We minimize this temptation whenever possible by declaring a passenger to be the “designated rubbernecker”. Unfortunately, as we’re apparently the only car on the road whose driver is keeping his eyes steadfastly off the wreck, it doesn’t seem to make much difference.

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  4. GrowUpPeople says:

    My ex- and I both HATED the rubbernecking and slowdowns caused by it. We had an agreement – whoever was driving would DRIVE, while the other person would describe in all the glorious gory detail what was happening. That sated our perverse desire to know what happened, yet kept two eyes on the road.

    Now that I am single, my eyes stick to the real danger – the drivers still moving, not the cars on the side of the road.

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  5. Bill says:

    How legitimate a phenomenon is rubbernecking? We’re told time and again to slow down or move over a lane if there are stopped vehicles on the shoulder, especially if there are emergency lights — of COURSE cars aren’t going to pass by the accident site at full speed. Do enough folks actually slow down solely to take a look to cause traffic delays? Or is the much more plausible explanation — that folks are following the rules of the road when cars are pulled over — the correct one?

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    • Marcus Kalka says:

      This was my thought as well. Whereas I’m sure some individuals are rubbernecking, we are being told to slow down or move over.


      All things being equal, even if individuals are rubbernecking for the sake of rubbernecking, they are probably doing so owing to accidents. Many of these accidents could probably be easily avoided by individuals not excessively speeding, texting on the road, driving drunk, etc. I’m leery of saying that screens are the solution because screens may be burdensome or simply draw further attention to the accident or incident. Whereas screens may be helpful, they may cause other problems, e.g. the wind blowing the screens into the highway causing further accidents, delay in assisting highway patrons owing to the time necessary to set up screens, et al.

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      • James says:

        Not to mention that after the first few cars slow down, whether from caution or for rubbernecking, every car behind perforce slows down to avoid rear-ending the car in front.

        But our local police forces have found a solution to the slowed traffic problem. I live off a section of highway that’s the only paved route between A and B that doesn’t involve a 40 mile detour. So whenever there’s a serious accident on this stretch, instead of dragging the cars off quickly, the police close the highway for several hours.

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  6. Mike B says:

    First of all, just about anything out of the ordinary sitting by the side of the road, from simple flat tires to someone going to the bathroom, can cause a significant delay on a road that is already near capacity. Second, even with screens people are going to try to look at what’s going on with all the emergency vehicles and whatnot. So given these two things you might as well have people look. The utility gained from the accident is payment for the delay in their travel. With screens you’ll have the delay without the payoff.

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  7. Tim says:

    Why can’t they make brake lights that are pressure sensitive? I feel so much of the “slinky effect” is due to the need to assume that a brake light means the driver in front of you is slamming on the brake (need to assume worst-case). If the brake lights’ brightness was pressure (or acceleration?) sensitive, you could tell if the braking is a tap or a slam, and drive accordingly, preventing the slinky effect and easing traffic a lot.

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    • James says:

      Because of the way the human visual is set up to react. It detects abrupt transitions, such as off to on, far more readily than gradual changes. Say the guy in front is driving with his lights on: would you notice a gradual increase in brightness from a light brake application? Or the gradual increase from light to heavier braking? But you do notice the brake light coming on.

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      • Tim says:

        The system I have visualized in my head would work almost the same way that the cell-phone reception system works, have multiple bars for the brake lights, and have more come on when more braking power is applied. It could also work like a visual display of music volumes, with the height of the bar representing the intensity of the braking. You wouldn’t have to notice a difference in light intensity, but the difference in the number of lighted objects. It seems like such a simple solution to a big problem.

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      • Jev says:

        A similar system already exists in some countries (don’t remember exactly where, but I seem to recall it was in Israel). The lightbar of the 3rd breaking light grows wider with increased deceleration. The harder you push the breaks, the wider the bar lights up.

        Anyway, these screens are an old idea. Don’t know why they never made it, but experiments have been carried out in Germany and the Netherlands. These days, fire brigade and other services don’t use fixed screens but sheets to block the accident scene from view. But still people slow down, almost to stand still, rubbernecking (priceless term btw!). Even an officer continuously waving traffic to move on doesn’t seem to work.

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  8. Mike B says:

    BTW is it just be or if crashed vehicles are by the side of the road long enough that screens are able to be erected, perhaps the problem lies in the accident response and not gaper delay. Clearing the highway of debris to allow resumption of normal operation should be the top priority after helping the injured and putting out fires. All too often the road is closed for hours while way too many emergency services with far too little to do putter about drinking coffee. Yeah I’m sure there is plenty that needs to be investigated, but I think we should make a public policy decision that restoring normal movement of vehicles is more important than determining who or what was at fault. The roads are for the living, get those dead bodies out of the way please.

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    • Baltimark says:

      Thought experiment. . .there’s an accident that slows down traffic due to rubbernecking. A jam is created.

      The accident scene is magically disappeared.

      Does the author think that the jam is magically dissipated? The jam persists because you have fast moving traffic coming into the back of slow moving traffic.

      Once a person reaches the point where they can see the accident, they are typically accelerating OUT of the jam. I don’t think screens can make a dent in the jam. Only time, and a lower volume will do that.

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