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.

robyn ann goldstein

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~..."

Clifton Griffin

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.


Enter your name

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.


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.


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?

Marcus Kalka

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.


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.

Mike B

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.


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.

Mike B

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.


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.


Eric, I know you are claiming this as your idea, but I'm going to claim dibs on it because I also thought of it a few years back! But seriously....

There are, in a sense, two sorts of accidents: Those that are minor and those that are major. When a minor accident occurs, some people don't know that they are to move their fender-bender OFF the road. They sit there, waiting for the police to come, thus holding up traffic. But even if they move off the road, you are going to have rubberneckers.

But in a major accident, something else happens (I think). When the accident occurs, it doesn't happen with an ambulance or firetruck standing by (usually). So the first responders are other people in the traffic flow. They quickly pull their cars over and run to help. This slows traffic because now their are several cars alongside the road. Further, if people are having to cross traffic lanes to help, it slows traffic, too.

Here's the bad part. If a police car show up, UNLESS the screen is around ALL of the vehicles, people slow down. That is, the accident could literally be invisible, but if you have firetruck, ambulance, and police car, lights flashing, sitting beside the road, traffic WILL slow to a crawl.

So unless we can cover it ALL, we will not correct the problem, I don't think.

However, there is some good news from this phenomenon. When the police want to slow traffic (assuming that is what they want to do, instead of just give out tickets), all they have to do is park on the side of the road and...TURN ON THEIR FLASHING LIGHTS. It's that simple. We are almost programmed to slow down. Whether to see an accident or because we think we may be entering a speed trap, etc.



These screens look pretty inefficient. On some highways they use what look like vertical blinds to block the view from one side of a highway to another. I got the impression the danger is headlight glare on highways located in mountain areas, as this is the only place I have really seen them. They are really just blades standing on end, positioned to block the view from one angle, but if you were going in the opposite direction (and I hope you are not in a highway), you would be able to see through them.
The blades could pack easily, be expanded to expand fairly easily and they wouldn't block the wind. Wouldn't that make more sense?

Before reading this post I didn't think anyone else even thought of this idea but me - it's been in my head for a long time. Glad to see so many others have crazy thoughts like I do!

paul grew

I've seen them on UK roads, they do make it very hard to rubber neck


I have also thought that police cars in the median are accident causes as well. You know when you are following behind the guy doing 10 mph over the limit that then decides 5 under is safer in front of a trooper.
Radical changes in speed and direction cause reduced control.


I feel like people will just try to see through the screens and it will be the same problem, only with more randomized braking as people reach various holes in the fencing...

Ian M

We could fund the screens by selling advertising on them. Beer companies come to mind.

Yes, I am kidding. Sorry to insult your intelligence by stating that.


Ian, this isn't actually that bad of an idea...unless the wording is something like, "This horrifying accident brought to you by Bud Lite."

But not only would images and wording perhaps make it more difficult to see through the screen, but it might help defray costs. If nothing else, you could make it an advertisement for the county, etc.


I suppose that's more humane than the suggestion I tend to offer. A final solution: make rubbernecking a capital offense, with immediate executions on the side of the road.

Eric M. Jones

I was the driver of the victim vehicle in one of the largest accidents in recorded LA memory: September 17, 1994, Saturday night about 8:15. The Santa Monica I-10 Fwy was closed down for 55 minutes, caused mostly by the lights and cameras from "Real Stories of the Highway Patrol."

There's some tape of me somewhere.

Hey, how about using smoke screens?