Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Wanna Neck? I Don't


I hope you're not one of them.

Rubberneckers are those people who ogle at traffic accidents alongside the highway, as if they'd never seen crumpled metal, smashed glass, and emergency vehicles before.

Rubberneckers are the number one cause of onlooker delays, those aggravating traffic phenomena in which vehicles that have no reason to crawl by an accident scene do so anyway.  Their drivers have some bizarre need to slow down and soak in a frivolous vignette of some suffering, damage, loss, and inconvenience being visited upon more unfortunate drivers.  Rubbernecking needlessly doubles the traffic congestion around an accident scene.  Which, in turn, creates new dangers in which additional accidents - mostly fender-benders - can take place.  Indeed, a 2003 study in Virginia found that rubbernecking is a major cause of distracted-driving accidents.

It's morbid curiosity, plain and simple.  The sight of automobiles damaged beyond their normal state intrigues some people.  But if you have a thing for wrecked cars, go visit a junkyard, where you can get your kicks from hundreds of them all together, in all sorts of weird post-accident poses.  Otherwise, please keep moving on the highway so the rest of us can safely get to wherever we have to go.

Now, to be clear, we're not talking about drivers who have to move out of the way to avoid an accident's residual debris in the roadway, or emergency vehicles that are parked haphazardly around damaged vehicles.  Plenty of traffic jams are caused by drivers who have no choice but condense from multiple lanes of traffic into one in order to pass an accident scene.  Slow travel is inevitable, and even required in some states for the safety of first responders working the area.

No, we all know who rubberneckers are, and what they're doing. "Schadenfreude" is the technical term for it, when we derive some sort of pleasure from other peoples' misfortune.  Drivers who engage in this activity are motivated purely by self-interest.  These are the drivers approaching an accident scene from the opposite direction, and who have no reason to slow down or pause to catch a glimpse of whatever scene may be unfolding in the oncoming lanes.  This is about taking something that we'd hate to have happen to ourselves and indulging in the miniature adrenaline rush we get from viewing it happening to somebody else.

Schadenfreude-obsessed rubberneckers are also likely the ones who stomp on their accelerator after passing an accident scene, shooting off like a rocket into the otherwise empty freeway, and driving in ways that could precipitate another accident down the road.  Only then, they wouldn't be onlookers.

Unfortunately, automobile accidents are so common, most statistics estimate that all of us Americans who drive on public roads will likely be involved in at least one serious collision in our lifetime.  The only person in my family who has not been in any type of car accident is my aunt, but that's because she's lived almost her entire life in New York City, where she'd never even had a drivers license.  Riding in as many taxis as she has, however, you know she's seen plenty of near-misses!  David Letterman once joked that riding in a New York cab is like watching your life flash before your eyes.

Meanwhile, rubberneckers are content to watch as other people deal with trauma of some sort.  If you were actually helping the situation by gawking at it, perhaps being a rubbernecker wouldn't be so bad.  But there's nothing positive, compassionate, intelligent, redeeming, helpful, encouraging, supportive, humanitarian, or beneficent about rubbernecking.  You'd think that by this time in the evolution of our use of the automobile, we'd be so used to the sight - and plight - of accidents, rubbernecking would have become extinct.

Then again, since rubbernecking seems to be a trait more suitable to Neanderthals than sophisticated 21st Century Homo sapiens, maybe its enduring popularity represents an argument against evolution instead.

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