What is "rubbernecking"?

Prompted by a reference in this thread (though the Elvis song has also had me wondering about it), what is “rubbernecking”? Is it just making out? Fight my ignorance.

I always thought that rubbernecking was loitering around some place/thing/person gawking when it is inappropriate to do so.

'Tis. The most specific use I know of is the people who slow down and gawk as they pass a traffic accident by the side of the road. They never take their eyes off it, and their heads swivel as they drive by, hence “rubberneckers.”

Rubbernecking? Stickybeaking. Gawking. Being a nosy parker. Taking a shufti, a Captain Cook, a gander.

Another small portion of my vast ignorance fought. Thanks, Dopers. Mods, feel free to close this.

Sort of off-topic, but I feel I have to say it anyway; nearly all described cases of ‘rubbernecking’ are in fact nothing of the sort; on a busy, multi-lane road, people slow down because the driver in front of them had slowed down - who slowed down because the driver in front of them had slowed down - and so on - without changing lanes or overtaking, you can only really drive slower than, or the same speed as, the driver in front.
Maybe a handful of drivers do the ‘rubbernecking’ thing at the start, right when the accident occurs (or maybe they just slow down out of genuine caution); the drivers behind are all condemned to follow suit.

Sorry for the hijack, it’s a pet peeve of mine; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard a radio travel reporter say “stop rubbernecking folks, just keep moving”, completely ignorant of the fact that we’d love to keep moving, but there’s this static wave of slow traffic in front of us.

No, I really there there is a rubber-necking phenomenon taking place that keeps traffic slow.

People will always slow down and look at an accident as they pass, especially if there is wreckage of some sort. As they turn to look (hence the “rubber” neck), they nearly always brake or come off the gas and coast, causing the person behind them to brake, and the person behind them and so on…

If (god forbid) you ever find yourself in an accident or sticking around as a witness, look at the drivers’ faces as they pass. I’ll bet you find 9 out of 10 turn to check it out.

Well, yes; it’s inevitable that people will look at an accident, and that (or the honest reflexive slowing down that ought to occur when there’s danger) is what starts it off; after that, people have no choice but to slow down and it is very often the case that there will continue to be a ‘knot’ of stopped or slowed traffic for some time after the accident has been cleared away and there’s nothing left to look at.

Sometimes, also, the ‘rubbernecking’ is actually a reaction to the slowed-down traffic - i.e. people looking around to see why we’ve all slowed down.

Sorry, but the reason why traffic has slowed down in the first place is because people slowed down to see the accident. And even when the slowdown continues and people slow because everyone else is, drivers still drive more slowly even when the reach the front of the line because they are looking at the accident.

Mangetout is right in this case.

Next time you’re in one. . .ask yourself this: just what could we – stuck in this slow lane of traffic – do differently to increase the speed of traffic again?

The answer is nothing. There’s nothing you can do. Traffic has slowed. And there is a point at which you can pick up speed again. That point isn’t “moving backward” along the road. Rubbernecking might have caused the initial slowdown, but rubbernecking is not aiding it’s continuation.

Besides, if I’m going to sit in a slow line of traffic for 30 minutes, you better well believe I’m going to try to get the pay off of seeing some twisted steel and shattered glass.

You’re not picturing this right. The front of the slow-line is always past the accident. When traffic is at that point where you’re filtering past an accident at 5-10 miles an hour, there is nothing that you – collectively – can do to change the situation.

Don’t know what your commute is. . .but I’m on I-95 between Baltimore and DC 400 times per year, and the DC Beltway quite a few of those days. It’s unlikely that you see more accidents and slow downs than I do.

Not in my experience of the part of the world where I live; as I said, in a lot of cases, there’s nothing left to look at at the accident site (except a few scraps of crash debris), but there’s still a static wave of stationary or slow traffic.

I’m not denying that people do look when there’s something to see - it’s incredibly difficult not to look (even if only to wonder what the hell it was that made us all slow down), but the point is that before you get the opportunity to look, you’ve already passed through a knot of stop-start traffic - so have the people behind you, and so on - if the traffic is dense enough, once it starts, there’s just no way to get it going again - vehicles arriving at the scene once the slow/stationary traffic situation has happened will be condemned to pass through it at the same speed, or slower than, the vehicle immediately in front.

I’ll fully accept that even when the traffic has slowed, rubbernecking keeps it slow. Every pair of eyes off the road in front is another second or so added to reaction times, including the reaction to speed up when possible. Yes, individually there’s not much that can be done. But collectively, the traffic remains slow because of driver behaviour.

Sorry, but this is incorrect. If you know or suspect that there is rubbernecking going on, your number-one response is to increase your following distance. I’m sure the idea has existed before, but in 1998, William Beaty outlined a plan whereby a few drivers leaving aggressive following distance (4+ seconds) can “eat” traffic jams. Stop competing for headway, and adopt a “best-for-everyone” attitude, and you can prevent rubberneck standstills. Read this guy’s account of his traffic experiments in Seattle’s notorious rush hour – it’s amazing what one car can do!

Well… okay, yeah, me too.

Hmmm… sounds like a great idea - spacing out the cars in a jam should make it flow more freely, however, that space needs to come from somewhere - increasing your following distance means… slowing down; and the car behind you has three choices (assuming overtaking is impossible):

  • Slow down to your speed
  • Slow down to a speed lower than yours
  • Keep going at a speed greater than yours, and collide with you.

I accept that there’s probably something to it though - close following distances make for harsh overbraking, which will tend to make things even worse.

The space doesn’t have to come from behind you, though. If you’re in normal unclogged traffic when you decide to summon a pocket of following distance, you just wait for a speeding driver to pass you. Get behind him, accelerate slowly up to his speed (maintaining a 4-second pocket), and then watch ahead of him for obstacles. When you see his brake lights, drift.

I’ve used this on I-95 between Baltimore and D.C., and I’ve also applied it to the notorious I-270/I-495 jam on the Beltway. It works!

Other useful tactics include:

  • bringing your pocket of following distance to a particularly nasty merge
  • hanging out slightly in front of (and to one side of) a tractor-trailer so that you establish two lanes of anti-traffic
  • shepherding particularly bad gas-brake-gas-brake drivers into the space in front of you where you can neutralize their bad habits

It’s fun to help the traffic move more quickly – try it on your commute home tonight!

Believe it or not, I know exactly what you mean by this. However, there’s a difference between the situations where this works and true “rubbernecking” situations.

What you’re referring to. . .for example, there’s one particular place on my commute where every day people come around a corner and into a rise. There’s always a lot of hard braking going on and it’s one of those spots where sometimes it checks up quicker than it appears and a person has to move into the break-down lane.

If I see the brake lights ahead, I’ll start slowing very early and you’d be surprised as how nicely that can make “flow” happen again. . .if I can slow down enough so that the person in front of me is accelerating as I get to him, it will cause an unblocking. This is an advanced commuter move.

It’s also easily thwarted by a person moving from the next lane over into my lane, throwing off my carefully timed decelleration. Because, decellerate too much, and you’re causing check-ups behind you.

However. . .this doesn’t work at all in a “big stop”, the kind caused by an accident, where no amount of slowing can get you to approach the car in front of you without stopping yourself, and you have no effect on flow. And increasing your following distance here puts you in the position that mahgetout mentioned.
Traffic can slow so severely that the “jam wave” doesn’t just move backwards, but just extends backwards. This is much more serious when there’s a lane closure. But, there’s also a type of traffic phenomenon I’ve noticed where the loss of the breakdown lane causes the left most lane to naturally slow down. I believe that people (some subconsciously, some consciously) travel TOO FAST() in the left most lane, knowing that the breakdown lane is there in case of the “check up - bail out”. When there is a breakdown lane closure, or other activity, even if the left hand lane is still totally open, you find those slow downs.
By the way, great link. I’m gonig over that in detail later. As weird as this may sound, I love thinking about traffic, and I don’t think it’s been adequately studied, even though it has been extensively studied.
) Meaning too fast, and too close for a lane that doesn’t have a break down lane. . .a rate of travel that the same drivers wouldn’t do in a middle lane.

The intial space grab make the traffic that tiny bit worse. However, it is more than made up for by the benefits of that space (letting other people switch lanes with having to fight their way in, keeping a constant smooth speed).

From that website:

Take a dekko, for you Anglo-Indians out there.