Rubbernecking: Now we’re jammin’ (traffic, that is)

Posted 4/26/19

We got a jump-start on Easter traffic by leaving early last Thursday morning for Florida to visit our son Addison and his wife Charis. I love driving, and driving long distances, but a trip to the …

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Rubbernecking: Now we’re jammin’ (traffic, that is)

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We got a jump-start on Easter traffic by leaving early last Thursday morning for Florida to visit our son Addison and his wife Charis. I love driving, and driving long distances, but a trip to the Sunshine State requires traversing I-95, that four-laned paean to bumper-to-bumperdom that seems to turn (whenever I drive it, anyway) into a miles-long parking lot punctuated by palm fronds, kitschy billboards and that most dastardly of human being, the driver who cuts in front of me without using his turn signal.

Thankfully, we got there in fine form and our trip was mostly smooth – with the exception of an extraordinary case of rubbernecking that created one of the longest traffic jams I’ve ever seen.

We were headed south somewhere in the middle of South Carolina when I began to notice the suddenly-slow northbound traffic. I hadn’t seen an accident, but as the miles passed, the traffic across the I-95 median going north got slower and slower. Never standstill slow, but 10-20 mph slow. It must have been like that for at least 10 miles.

Then, suddenly, our traffic flow began to slow as well. Another 20 or so minutes later, we came upon the accident.

The offending bump-up looked bad enough – three cars, pulled off the highway, each with damage enough to make them undriveable, but with no apparent injuries to the passengers. But it was bad enough to cause hundreds of cars, maybe more than a thousand, to engage in the time-honored practice of gawking. We passed and took our turn checking out the scene. Traffic soon began to speed up. In short order we crossed into Georgia, I-95 became three lanes and it was clear sailing all the way to Winter Park.

What was most curious to me, though, was what caused the northbound backup given that the wreck was in the southbound lane. Maybe there was more traffic heading that way, but certainly onlooker delays made it worse.

It made me think of the writer and marketing guru Seth Godin, who’s taken up the subject of “rubbernecking” in his daily blog a few times over the years. (“Seth’s Blog” is required reading for me; you can check it out at

In one post, he says that traffic jams teach us a lot about human nature. “In the U.S., when there’s an accident on the side of the road, traffic in the other direction slows down,” he wrote. “People voluntarily slow down and look over at the carnage. This is nuts.”

Godin goes on to write that people would never pay money to “go to a movie filled with car wrecks that hurt real people. And yet, they do it from their car. It turns out we’re very interested in things that are happening in real time, right next to us. Not only that, but the jam created by this voluntary slowdown can last for an hour or more. And yet, when it’s your turn, when you get to the front of the line, instead of saying, ‘well, I got punished for the bad behavior of the 1,000 people ahead of me, I’m going to fix that and speed up now,’ we say, ‘hey, I paid my dues, my turn to look…’”

He calls the act of rubbernecking a “time tax” that we place on those behind us.

The explanation, of course, isn’t complicated: we slow down to look at the accident to get a really good look; to, in Seth’s words, “remind ourselves it’s not us. To reassure ourselves it’s not someone we know. Phew. Rubbernecking is our way of reassuring ourselves.”

The problem, though, is that we do the exact opposite when it comes to things we consider “unfixable.” Instead of rubbernecking, we avert our eyes. We deny and choose the status quo over digging in and working for a solution.

The lesson, he says, is that there are times to look away (and avoid onlooker delays) — and times to gawk, to look more closely.

Wisdom is driving to make the right choice.


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