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.


Ulysses

This is some of the best news I've heard in a week.

I personally lay on the horn as I approach to get people to wake the hell up. It's antisocial I know, but it's warranted. At most when I pass, I glance at it just as I would glance at a sign telling me about an upcoming Hardee's restaurant (i.e. I keep @#$%ing going without letting off the gas). Ya get an idea, then you move on with your life.

Otto

Your idea has merit. It's just about feasible execution.

I can appreciate those folks slowing down when the accident are on your side of the highway. However, here in Miami, the other side of the highway would also lock up with rubberneckers. Our airport expressway congested up with the slightest hint of a flat tire. Some brilliant highway designer raised the concrete median wall on this highway from 3 feet to almost 6 feet. (Effectively, your screen made out of concrete.) Traffic still congests on the side with the broken cars, but the other side keeps moving with no one the wiser. It's a beautiful sight!!!

Ed Kay

I'm one of those who has no interest at all in accidents that just happen to be where I'm passing. Some time ago, driving thru New Mexico on a road that had, due to road repairs, been to reduced to one lane in each direction I was caught behind an interminable line of gawkers. By the time the giant black pick-up truck in front of me, riding about 8 feet off the ground, reached the scene of the accident, the sight had been mostly cleaned up. Still the driver not only slowed down but came to a complete stop (without pulling over). After about four minutes, with drivers behind me honking away, I pulled around that guy and proceeded merrily on my way. But the next thing I see and hear are flashing lights and wailing sirens right behind me. I came within a hair's breadth of being cited for reckless driving.

Anne

I think rubbernecking is the wrong term--I see the same thing traveling up I95 whenever there is a message posted on the overhead boards. Everyone slows down to read the message, and as soon as they pass the message board, they resume speed. ANYTHING out of the normal--accident, police car, roadwork, message will make people slow down. Just as we were taught in drivers' ed: when you see something unusual, take your foot off the gas. Multiply the seconds each driver does this times hundred of cars=traffic jam. Don't see a solution.

Steve Bennett

It's a bit harsh to call it "rubbernecking" and "gaping" - if people didn't look at the results of a car crash, we'd call it "wilful ignorance" or "callous indifference". I'd also point out that most crash scenes are attended by several emergency vehicles with lights flashing. Surely the whole point of the flashing lights is to make us slow down and pay attention to them.

So, screens, yes. Criticism of driver behaviour near accident sites, no.

Chuck

After reading "how about setting up screens at accident sites" too quickly I envisioned a series of large projection screens every one hundred yards or so on the side of the road, each showing live footage of the accident scene prior to the drivers' arrival. This way they would be less inclined to "rubberneck" since the accident was already seen on the makeshift televisions beforehand.

I'll read more slowly next time.

Jim Philips

Rubbernecking doesn't just cause traffic jams. It causes accidents as well. I was injured as a passenger when the person driving started rubbernecking an accident. As a result, somebody hit us from behind and we plowed into the existing scene. One rescue worker had his legs clipped out from under him and we hit the back of a truck parked at the scene. My face went through the windshield and I suffered torn ligaments in my ankle. These screens seem like a very good idea to me.

Leland Witter

I also had this idea years ago. I even had a brand name idea - "Gapers Block" (that's what the traffic reporters in Chicago call such tie-ups)

Rob

I know along some stretches of freeway in Atlanta the barrier between highway going different directions has "polls" built up to 7 feet high that almost completely prevent one side of the freeway from seeing anything happening on the other side. I noticed on my drive home that crashes on the other side of the freeway did not cause a slowdown like I had seen in other places.

I am sure the "portable" barriers would be useful, but why not just use some other form of permanent barrier along areas of the highway where there are frequent crashes?

Sine Nomine

How about instead of trying to hide the accident, assign an incident # to it & post (non-gore photos) or

3d images of the accident with physical explanation of what actually happened. "This is incident #

11194nbI950800, it will be available for view at yourcityhere.accident.dot some time later today"

Thanks for keeping driving & NOT looking.

Thanks

Sine Nomine

Don Adair

I saw just such a screen in action in Salt Lake City a few years ago. Not only did it prevent undue delays (though of course, traffic slowed) but it also resolved for me the internal look/don't look conundrum we all seem to suffer from. Almost inevitably, when I look I wish I hadn't.

Tom

This is already fairly common in Germany and Austria. Accident happens, the blue screens go up ( bothe directions if in the median), and traffic keeps going by at almost normal (meaning 80 mph instead of 100 mph) speeds

Adrian

People would slow down anyway. I once hit traffic on I5 southbound just north of San Diego. The cause was someone in the northbound lane changing a flat tire. As soon as I passed it, the traffic cleared up. A screen would be a visual attraction that people would recognize and try to see around. I believe the best thing would be a big sign over the freeway near an accident that says "Keep moving, maintain your speed!" with long arms that reach down and slaps rubber-neckers on the backs of their heads.

Jordan Schooler

The slowing of traffic due to rubbernecking is probably beneficial. As a paramedic, I'd rather not have people in the next lane over from an accident going 70+ miles per hour (while texting, eating, etc.).

Brok

Screens are fine for nice bright days with no wind other than turbulence caused by passing traffic. Imagine a stormy, rainy, spray-filled carriageway the dozen or so people required to erect the screen dodging through opposing rush hour traffic, drivers accelerating to be the last one through before the slow-down; tie-downs slipping through cold wet fingers and the screen blowing into and across windscreens. Imagine the enormous power of even a twenty miles an hour crosswind and the strain the screen would have to overcome, sit and think for a moment of just how few serious accidents have been caused by rubbernecking and the potential number of serious accidents that could be caused by the attempted erection of a screen, fighting the tons of wind pressure on just such a day and ask, "Is it worth it?"
Perhaps large painted letters on the safety barriers set every fifty yards saying simply "Don't rubberneck" would be just as effective, certainly just as daft.
Have any statistics been established between night and day accidents and their effect upon opposing traffic? Darkness is an effective natural screen.

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David

Hello,
I am a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and I am very interested in this issue. Do you know of any initiatives like this in the U.S?

Miguel Leman

What has happened with this good idea? Any other articles of their repeated use from anywhere? Thanks, Miguel