You know the saying: "It's like a car crash. You can't look away!"
When you're moving along the highway at a snail's pace, barely making your way past a fender bender on the side of the road, you notice that there's nothing actually blocking the path ahead. Yet everyone, including yourself, slowed down to assess the damage on the side of the road—causing highway congestion and a breeding ground for accidents.
What is rubbernecking? And why do you do it?
Rubbernecking, or craning your neck to get a better view of an accident, is one of the leading causes of traffic jams. Research from the Journal of Transportation Technologies states that "rubbernecking is a result of a human response to the surroundings, such as freeway signs, scenery, billboard ads, and many other visual 'eye-candies.'"
Dr. John Mayer, clinical psychologist at Doctor on Demand, told NBC News that seeing car accidents trigger your flight-or-fight and survival instincts, which is why you're drawn to the destruction.
"A disaster enters into our awareness this can be from a live source such as driving by a traffic accident or from watching a news report about a hurricane, a plane crash or any disaster," he explains to NBC News. "This data from our perceptual system then stimulates the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotions, survival tactics, and memory). The amygdala then sends signals to the regions of the frontal cortex that are involved in analyzing and interpreting data. Next, the brain evaluates whether this data (awareness of the disaster) is a threat to you; thus judgment gets involved. As a result, the 'fight or flight' response is evoked."
Wait, this sounds normal. Why is rubbernecking bad?
Even though your brain (and your neck) has what's a seemingly "normal" response, going out of your way to slow down and check out an accident is extremely dangerous. Think about it this way: taking your eyes off the road for five seconds at 55 mph is like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed!
So, it shouldn't come as a surprise that a study by the Crash Investigation Team of the Transportation Safety Training Center at Virginia Commonwealth University revealed that rubbernecking was the leading cause of vehicle crashes. Many first responders recognize this is an issue and try to place barriers between the scene of the crash and the road, to keep other drivers from causing more of a scene.
What can you do to help alleviate this problem? It's simple. Keep your eyes on the road. You can't be distracted by something you're not looking at.
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