Friday, 19 June 2009

'Rubbernecking': Far Less Common than People Think

As regular readers of this blog will know I drive anything between 280 Km and 630 Km per week, so spend quite a lot of time on the road. I imagine that this means I see a lot more bad driving than most people. Of course 'bad' is a subjective description, lorry drivers view anyone else being in their vicinity as being bad even if we are obeying the law precisely. Daily I see congestion and accidents, the kind of things that fill the traffic reports of radio stations from national right down to small local level stations. Often when there is an accident on one side of, say the M25 or M3 or even the A31 (a dual carriageway which has a wide, overgrown central reservation) then you find traffic on the other side, i.e. the side without the actual accident, slows down as well.

On some radio stations there are sneery comments condemning the 'rubberneckers', people supposedly in some morbid fascination, to stare at the accident. This misapprehension is heard on many radio stations, though ones like Wave 105 which covers Hampshire and Dorset, counties I often drive through, are the worst. Wave 105 is a bad radio station anyway with incredibly self-righteous DJs clearly aware of their populist, rather bigoted audience who seem to just love complaining about immigrant and generally being smug about the'right' way to do things, so perhaps it is unsurprising that they sneer at those drivers they believe are behaving in an improper way.

Today, from my extensive experience, I am going to outline why I believe this reports are based on a misapprehension about most drivers. I am not pretending that there are not people who do not slow down to stare at accidents, possibly with genuine concern if on a small road, that it might be a friend or neighbour who has crashed. However, in any situation these people are in a small minority. People slow down on the opposite carriage for one simple reason, it is a natural reaction. When you are next a passenger in a car, taxi or coach, notice what the driver does when they see a flashing light, even from the corner of their eye. Their foot lifts from the accelerator automatically. If you asked them they probably could not even tell you that they had done it.

Another thing is that many roads curve in the UK, even motorways, so as you approach an incident, it is not always clear whether the flashing lights are on your side of the carriageway or on the other side until you are up close, especially as usually there are lots of slow-moving cars and lorries in between you and the incident when you first become aware of it. In addition, there are in fact, quite often, accidents that go across both carriageways. You do not know until you are right up to it, what is happening, so naturally you slow up long before you could even catch a glimpse of the accident site. It is good that drivers slow when they see flashing lights, this is something we want to encourage, not sneer at.

It does not even have to be a flashing light. I drive a lot on the M3 and M25 and often on the so-called matrix boards information flashes up about congestion or accidents on other roads, often far distant from where you are at the moment. On the M3 you get information about the M4 which is reached from the M3 down the A34 or the M25, but you are still warned about incidents on it. Around the M25 which connects all the major roads and motorways you get information about roads which are often on the other side of London from where you are currently driving. However, again you will notice, that no matter what information is being displayed, naturally people slow up so that they can read it. Sometimes the instruction is immediate such as a speed limit or something like the currently very popular message 'Queue Caution 40'. It takes some seconds to process the data even if it is not urgent. You now get information like 'A34 38 miles 34 minutes', which is useful if you are going up the A34, but even if you are not, the bulk of drivers read, process and probably start analysing what it means in terms of speed. Again, this leads them to slow up. Anyone who drives on Britain's motorways will know that the moment a indication like this comes into sight traffic automatically slows. It could say 'God save the Queen' or 'Qwertyuiop' and it would still have the same effect.

Slowing up when you come up to an accident whatever side of the road it is on, is not the bad thing that radio stations lazily assume it to be. Of course there are people who do not slow up and that is why you get accidents opposite existing accidents and through complex road works (which seem to be all over the motorways of South-East England at present). However, it is they who should be condemned. Slowing traffic in the opposite carriageway to an accident is a natural response: blue lights/matrix signs = slowing up. The equation is no more complex than that, and for anything else to happen is both unnatural and in fact hazardous. So, let us stop complaining about the supposed morbid 'rubberneckers' and actually take account of what really happens on our roads, which in my view, is actually the more sensible reaction from drivers.

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