What is rubbernecking?
Rubbernecking occurs when drivers take their eyes off the road to look at a distraction, such as an accident or arrest. The term originated in the late 1800s to describe the act of turning and stretching the neck to eavesdrop. Today, it's synonymous with the same motion but is now commonly associated with the action that takes place while driving—namely slowing down to see an event that happened to someone else. Rubbernecking is a form of distracted driving that can be as dangerous as texting or talking on the phone while driving.
What are examples of rubbernecking?
Even the most careful drivers can catch themselves rubbernecking, or they might be rubbernecking without realizing it. But when, why, and how does rubbernecking happen? Consider the following:
When you see a bad accident and flashing ambulance lights on the side of the road up ahead, you might be worried about how seriously the drivers might be injured. It’s best to keep your eyes on the road instead of causing another accident. Learn more about what to do after a car accident.
Wondering why a police car has pulled a car over is another reason people slow down. You may wonder what the driver did, but then you yourself become a distracted driver. Learn about how distracted driving can increase insurance rates.
Marveling at the landscape on the side of the road is another way people tend to rubberneck — you can't take your eyes off the fall foliage, for example, and tend to slow down so you can do two things at once.
Is rubbernecking illegal?
Rubbernecking isn't technically illegal. However, some states may have laws about impeding traffic, which could apply to rubbernecking if you're stopping or slowing your vehicle. If you're involved in an accident and were rubbernecking at the time of the crash, you could be liable for the damage and injuries to others involved in the crash.
Rubbernecking and driving accidents
Rubbernecking causes traffic jams when everyone slows down to look at accidents — but more alarmingly, it also causes car accidents. One study suggests rubbernecking may be responsible for nearly one-fifth of all car accidents.
Why do people rubberneck when they know it's dangerous to take their eyes off the road? It's human nature. According to Women’s Health Magazine, humans have a "seemingly strange fascination with all the things morbid." Some countries have experimented with setting up screens around an accident to make it difficult to rubberneck.
Why should you avoid rubbernecking?
Your instinct when you see an accident might be to slow down to see what happened, but it is important to stop rubbernecking for the following reasons:
- Rubbernecking is dangerous: According to the CDC, approximately 3,000 people die in the U.S. each year in crashes involving distracted drivers.
- Rubbernecking can cause accidents: When you look away, you may lose the split-second you have to avoid a potential collision.
- Rubbernecking exacerbates traffic: If no one rubbernecked, accidents on the side of the road wouldn't cause slow-downs and traffic jams.