An urge to gawk fuels trouble

Rubbernecking drivers create problems, and it's getting worse, area road officials say.

Published June 25, 2007

You're cruising down the interstate when the drivers in front of you suddenly hit their brakes. Traffic slows to a crawl as you sit helplessly behind the wheel, searching for the cause.

Sometimes it's a serious crash. But often it's just a minor fender-bender or flashing police lights on the side of the road.

The real cause of the traffic jam: rubbernecking drivers.

The seemingly irresistible urge to gawk at car wrecks and other roadside distractions is a big problem in the Tampa Bay area, and getting worse, say state troopers and traffic police.

Some blame our increasingly voyeuristic culture -- a bad mix with the region's overcrowded roads. Even worse, recent research suggests rubbernecking is more dangerous than previously thought. One study says it causes more crashes than cell phones.

"All the rubberneckers are so aggravating because I just want to get where I'm going," said Tampa truck driver Kevin Hunter. "People are like sheep. Can't they just drive their cars?"

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Florida Highway Patrol troopers see it all the time: As drivers tap their brakes and crane their necks to get a better look at an accident, one car ends up rear-ending another. It's not uncommon for a serious crash to spawn a second or third one in its aftermath.

And it's not your imagination: rubbernecking is definitely worse these days, said Larry Coggins, a local FHP trooper for more than 13 years.

"We're living in a reality TV world," he said. "It's very sensational to the general public to see firsthand what's going on - the 'wow' factor of mangled vehicles."

The increasing popularity of camera phones isn't helping, either.

"People want to take a picture of the accident scene," said Clearwater Police Sgt. John Diebel, a traffic homicide investigator. "They're trying to hold the camera steady instead of looking at the vehicle that's slowing down right in front of them."

Anything out of the ordinary -- a construction crew, an abandoned car - can spark a chain reaction of brake taps. Recently, a TECO crew stringing a power line over Interstate 275 caused a daylong traffic crawl near downtown Tampa, even though the highway itself was completely unblocked.

And then there are the judgment calls.

Police are well aware that pulling someone over on a bridge or a busy road is almost guaranteed to jam traffic. But they say the calculus is simple: Enforcing the law comes first.

"When you see a violation, you make the stop," Coggins said.

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Rubbernecking is not a new phenomenon. According to H.L. Mencken's classic book The American Language, the word entered the American vernacular as part of a wave of compound words invented during the late 1800s and early 1900s: Joyride, highbrow, skyscraper, pinhead. Rubberneck.

So why do we do it?

To a certain extent, it's natural, experts say. Humans are a curious species and drawn to the unusual. Drivers are trained to survey the terrain around them.

"That's the driver's job -- to cover all the visual field, to the side and in front. Drivers are supposed to do that," said Leon James, a University of Hawaii psychology professor who's considered one of the nation's top experts on traffic habits.

"The problem is slowing down while you're looking at an accident," James said. He suggests drivers train themselves to look without holding up traffic -- maintain your speed, keep a safe following distance and take quick glances while passing a crash scene.

When a driver stops or slows drastically to rubberneck, experts say it causes a "backward traveling traffic wave" -- the next driver must stop and the next and the next, potentially affecting thousands of vehicles. From the air it resembles an accordion, with gaps closing until the cars are bumper-to-bumper.

When that first vehicle takes off again, the reverse happens. Reopening those gaps takes a few seconds per car and, when multiplied by thousands of cars, leads to traffic jams.

"These traffic waves have been observed to go as much as 25 miles behind one little slowdown," James said. "Long after you get home, the traffic wave you created is still slowing down people on the highway."

That's why sometimes, after being stuck in traffic for an hour, you never even get to see the reason why. It's all been cleared away by the time you get there.

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Pop quiz: What's the most common cause of accidents among distracted drivers?

Yakking on the cell phone? Changing the radio station? Shushing screaming children?

Try old-fashioned rubbernecking.

That was the conclusion of a 2003 study where researchers and police examined nearly 2,800 distraction-related crashes in Virginia.

Rubbernecking was the biggest single cause, accounting for 16 percent of the crashes. Other problems were driver fatigue 12 percent, looking at scenery (10 percent), other passengers or children (9 percent), adjusting the radio, cassette or CD player (7 percent), and -- back in sixth place -- using a cell phone (5 percent).

Harry Teng, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas published a report on rubbernecking in 2004.

He found that 10 percent of accidents were caused by rubbernecking on the opposite side of the road. He also discovered that rubbernecking was less common in the morning as people rush to work and more frequent in the evening when they're heading home.

Pei-Sung Lin, a traffic researcher at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida, drives I-275 and Interstate 4 regularly and sees rubbernecking traffic jams feed on themselves.

Lin's observation: When traffic is light, drivers can get a look at an accident from farther away, so they don't slow down much to check it out. But when traffic is slow, motorists can't see an accident scene up ahead because their view is blocked by other vehicles. When they finally get to it, they slow down further to take a look.

Ultimately, he said, it comes down to curiosity.

"That part of human nature is really difficult to control," Lin said. "When we are forced to drive so slowly, we are anxious to know the reason. Unconsciously, people need to know why."

Daily commuter and admitted rubbernecker Denise Moss, who lives in St. Petersburg and works as an office manager in Tampa, has her own theory:

"An accident, it's like a cautionary tale. You always have to look. Because you're just thankful it wasn't you."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or brassfield@sptimes.com.